Episode 73: Mr. Nine and the Gentleman Ghost by Aidan Doyle


Mr. Nine and the Gentleman Ghost

by Aidan Doyle

Elisabeth gave her invitation to the valet and received a gilt-edged program in return. It welcomed her to the Bearbrass Gentle Ladies Society Monthly Ball. The valet glanced at Elisabeth’s satchel and then escorted her into the ballroom.

Bearbrass had been a sleepy colonial outpost until gold was discovered in the nearby hills. Within three years, it had been transformed into the largest city in all of the colonies. Elisabeth did not think of it as necessarily an improvement.

A dozen chandeliers clung to the ceiling and paintings imported from the empire competed for space on the walls. An orchestra of more than twenty musicians waited on the stage at the far end of the room.

Mrs. Rittiker, the president of the Bearbrass Gentle Ladies Society, greeted Elisabeth at the entrance. She was a short, stout woman in her early fifties and wore a purple chiffon gown with a plunging neckline. “You’ve come without a chaperone again,” she said. “If I were half the gentle lady I pretend to be, I would be thoroughly scandalized.”

Elisabeth laughed. Although ostensibly the Gentle Ladies Society served as an organizer of social functions, the society’s inner council was devoted to recovering the lost knowledge of the ancient gentle ladies. She had known Mrs. Rittiker all of her life. She handed over the satchel. “Fresh from the book mines.”

Mrs. Rittiker opened the bag and took out a book. She brushed a speck of dirt from the cover and smiled when she read the title. The Gentle Ladies’ Guide to Midnight Apparitions. “No one has your talent for finding books, Elisabeth.”

She replaced the book in the satchel and handed it to a servant. “Take this to my carriage.” She took Elisabeth by the hand. “There are some handsome young men waiting to see you.” Mrs. Rittiker led her over to the other guests and a dozen young men formed a line in front of her.

Elisabeth suppressed a sigh. The only reason she came to the balls was to meet Bertie, and he was always irritatingly late.

“This is Horatio Lightfellow,” Mrs. Rittiker said. “He arrived on this morning’s zeppelin from the empire.”

“Charmed to meet you,” Lightfellow said. “At some point in the evening I would be most happy to inform you of the latest fashions in the capital.” His gaze strayed to Elisabeth’s hair. She had been born with hair made from gold.

“I had been told of the remarkable properties of Bearbrass gold,” he said. “But I wasn’t aware it extended to the city’s inhabitants.”

Elisabeth could think of nothing less interesting than talking about what clothes people she had never met were wearing. “I was conceived in a gold mine,” she said.

Lightfellow looked shocked. “I hardly think that’s something a young lady should mention.” He looked to Mrs. Rittiker for assistance. “I had heard tales of the wild women in the colonies, but I had presumed them exaggerated.”

“Bearbrass Gentle Ladies are not as gentle as the ladies of the empire,” Mrs. Rittiker said. “We take great pride in that.”

“My father was a gold prospector,” Elisabeth said. “My mother was a librarian. I am a book prospector.”

“She’s the best in all the colonies,” Mrs. Rittiker added. “Her heart is made from gold too.”

Lightfellow appeared lost for words. “May I have the pleasure of the last dance?” he eventually asked.

“I’m terribly sorry, Mr. Lightfellow,” Elisabeth replied. “I always leave the last dance free.”

He checked his program. “The seventeenth dance?”

“I would be most pleased to dance with you.” She wrote Lightfellow in the space next to 17 on her program.

Lightfellow bowed and hastily retreated. The next man stepped forward and the process continued. She insisted on leaving the last dance free.

The orchestra started playing. Her first partner led her onto the polished hardwood floor. She danced a waltz, changed partners, danced a polka, then a one step and another waltz. Her partners were a mixture of gold prospectors, bankers and cattle kings. Halfway through the night they paused for supper and crowded around tables laden with cakes and pastries. Elisabeth helped herself to a slice of chocolate cake.

Mrs. Rittiker gathered a crowd around her and began a lengthy tale of her exploits on the cricket field.

Elisabeth overheard Lightfellow expressing his disapproval of Bearbrass women.

Then everyone fell silent. Elisabeth turned around.

A four foot high ventriloquist’s puppet stood at the entrance to the room. It wore a dark suit and orange bow tie and clenched a poster in its right hand. The puppet marched mechanically towards the stage, its wooden limbs jerking as though pulled by invisible strings.

Elisabeth leaned over to Mrs. Rittiker. “Who’s that?”

“Mr. Nine. The Governor hired it to crush the miners’ rebellion. Now it can go wherever it pleases. Even the Governor’s scared of it.”

The puppet slowly made its way up the stage stairs. It took a moment to survey the crowd. “Mr. Nine is most sorry to intrude.” It unfurled a wanted poster, revealing a sketch of a monkey. “Mr. Nine wants this monkey spirit. Have you seen it?”

No one spoke. The puppet sniffed the air. It stared at Elisabeth.

Her heart hammered against her chest. “How did it come to life?” she whispered.

“The gold did it. Now it has to eat gold to stay alive.” Mrs. Rittiker glanced at Elisabeth’s golden strands. “You should be careful, my dear.”

A servant placed a table and stool at the edge of the stage. The puppet sat down and rested its elbows on the table. The little finger on its left hand was missing.

“Why is it looking for a monkey spirit?” Elisabeth asked.

“A monkey spirit bit off one of its fingers.”

A servant brought a pile of pancakes sprinkled with gold dust to Mr. Nine’s table. The puppet began eating with great gusto, shoveling the pancakes into its little mouth. It washed them down with a glass of iced water mixed with gold flakes.

The orchestra resumed playing and Elisabeth’s next dance partner escorted her onto the floor. She couldn’t help glancing at Mr. Nine and twice accidentally stood on her partner’s foot. The puppet finished eating the pancakes and licked its lips with its bright green tongue.

The dances continued until it was almost time for the last dance. Captain Albert Widdershins floated through the far wall and strode through the orchestra. The musicians scattered. No one liked having a ghost walk through them.

Elisabeth felt the tension slip away. Bertie always liked to make a grand entrance. He was six feet tall with a ramrod-straight back, a trim moustache and short hair. He had once been a zeppelin captain and wore riding boots and a tight-fitting military uniform. She could sense the envy of the other young ladies. He was the most handsome gentleman ghost in all of Bearbrass. He had died in the mines and the gold had brought him back.

He nodded to Mrs. Rittiker and glided over to Elisabeth. “If you’ll permit me to say so, you look most enchanting tonight, Miss Elisabeth.”

“Permission granted, Captain Widdershins.”

“I must once again apologize for my tardiness.”

“The hour grows late, Captain. I fear the last dance is almost upon us.”

He stepped closer to her. “If the lady would be so kind as to allow me to touch her golden locks.”

She nodded. He slipped off his gloves and put them in his belt. When his spectral hand met Elisabeth’s hair, a jolt of energy coursed through her. His ghostly hand assumed a solid form and gradually his whole body transformed into solid flesh.

His hand lingered a moment on her hair. “May I have the last dance?”

She pretended to check her program. Then she took his arm in hers. His body was cold, but she felt it growing warmer.

In her excitement at Bertie’s arrival, she had almost forgotten about Mr. Nine. The puppet watched silently from its stool. She tried to put it out of her mind.

The last dance was a waltz. The captain encircled her waist with his right arm and took her right hand in his left. He twirled her and led her around in a circle. The rest of the world seemed to disappear. It was just the music and Bertie’s strong arms. It felt like they had only been dancing for a few seconds and then the music finished.

“Once again, Miss Elisabeth you have enchanted me with your grace and beauty,” Bertie said. “I warrant that even the Queen of the Fairies would acknowledge you as the superior dancer.”

Elisabeth laughed. “And I warrant that even the King of the Leprechauns would acknowledge you as the superior flatterer.”

Footsteps sounded behind her. She turned to see Mr. Nine.

The puppet bowed. “Mr. Nine would like to request the last dance.”

“But the last dance has just finished,” she said.

“That was the second last dance,” the puppet replied. “The orchestra will play again. What is the lady’s preference? A waltz?”

“I’m sorry, but the evening is late. I must be getting home.”

“Do not concern yourself. Mr. Nine’s carriage will take you home.”

Captain Widdershins stepped in front of Elisabeth. “The lady has said she is going home. It is the height of bad manners to persist in bothering her.”

Mr. Nine stared at Widdershins. “Mr. Nine is requesting the last dance. This does not concern you.”

Elisabeth put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s all right, Bertie.” She looked down at Mr. Nine. “Thank you for your offer, but Captain Widdershins has already agreed to escort me home.”

The puppet sniffed the air and its green tongue crept along its lips. “Mr. Nine is hungry. Mr. Nine likes your smell.” The puppet stared at Elisabeth’s chest.

Widdershins plucked a glove from his belt and slapped Mr. Nine across the face.

The puppet’s eyes rolled in surprise and it glared up at Widdershins. “Mr. Nine accepts your challenge.”


The Bearbrass cricket oval also served as the dueling grounds. Elisabeth and Bertie walked to the oval, followed by a crowd of onlookers. Mr. Nine traveled by carriage.

As the host of the ball, the duty of overseeing the duel fell to Mrs. Rittiker. She directed the servants as they laid out a number of lanterns in a circle.

Elisabeth and Bertie waited near the lanterns. Clouds obscured the moon, and shadows hid Bertie’s face.

“I don’t want you to do this,” she said.

“I don’t want to do this either,” he replied. “But I have no choice. If I don’t stop the puppet, it will come for you. It wants to eat your heart.”

“Let me worry about that. I can always hide in the mines.”

“It is my duty as a gentleman to protect you.”

“I can look after myself. Who is going to look after you?”

“I am a most accomplished duelist,” he replied.

“Why do you have to fight now? If you wait until morning, you’ll be spectral again.”

“If I’m spectral, I can’t hold a gun,” Bertie said.

“What happens if a ghost is killed?” she asked.

“If a ghost dies, you should collect some of its blood. Ghost blood has many powers.” He paused and then said, “I want you to promise me that you’ll take the first zeppelin in the morning if I don’t win.”

Elisabeth shook her head. “Not without you.”

“You know it won’t be safe here. Promise me.”

“Only if you promise that you won’t die.”

Bertie laughed. “I’m already dead.”

Mrs. Rittiker walked over to them. “You shouldn’t go through with this,” she said. “The puppet is near unkillable. The only thing that can stop it is if you bite off parts of its body. That’s why it can’t replace its finger. The monkey spirit bit it off.”

“Thank you for your concern, dear lady. I shall disable the puppet with a shot to the head and then I shall use my teeth to sever what body parts I deem necessary.”

Elisabeth took his hand. “Please, Bertie.”

“A zeppelin captain never backs away from a fight.”

Mrs. Rittiker sighed. “Then we are ready to start.” She walked to the center of the circle.

Bertie squeezed her fingers. “Goodbye Beth.” He let go of her hand and followed Mrs. Rittiker.

Mr. Nine’s driver opened the puppet’s carriage door. Mr. Nine stepped out of the carriage and set off towards the circle. The driver took a wicker laundry basket from inside the carriage and then followed after the puppet.

Mr. Nine marched into the illuminated circle. The driver stopped at the edge of the crowd. About fifty onlookers, including several women, had come from the ball to watch the spectacle. Their faces were hidden in the shadows cast by the lanterns, but Elisabeth heard their excited voices. Witnessing a duel between a puppet and a ghost would give them a tale to entertain their society friends.

Elisabeth swore at the top of her voice.

The crowd fell into a shocked silence.

“Be quiet,” she said softly.

Mrs. Rittiker waited until Bertie and the puppet stood next to each other.

“Do either of you wish to withdraw from this duel?”

“No,” Bertie said.

“Mr. Nine is ready to fight,” the puppet said.

Mrs. Rittiker handed a dueling pistol to each of the combatants. They inspected the guns and then exchanged them. They took up positions at opposite edges of the circle.

Elisabeth noticed that Mr. Nine’s driver had opened the wicker basket and was peering into it.

Mrs. Rittiker held a red handkerchief in her hand. She lifted her arm and then dropped the handkerchief.

Bertie aimed his gun and fired. Mr. Nine’s wooden head exploded.

The puppet’s body raised its gun and shot Bertie between the eyes.

Captain Widdershins tumbled to the ground.

Elisabeth sprinted to his side. She shook him, but he didn’t respond. His body was cold. She wiped the blood from his face with her handkerchief. She closed his eyes and kissed his cold lips. His body faded away.

Mr. Nine’s driver carried a wooden head with an identical face on it towards Mr. Nine’s headless body.


Elisabeth put on her pair of cats-eye spectacles and stepped into the mine shaft. It was dark, but the glasses allowed her to see. After ten minutes she reached a large cavern with a dozen tunnels branching off in different directions. She knew this area well and had a good idea where to look for the book she wanted. She chose one of the tunnels leading south.

Eventually she noticed some small, brown, spotted, speckled mushrooms. The wall was moist, damp, clotted and earthen. Adjectives were one of the most common signs of buried books. Now all she had to do was find a subtext. She put her nose against the earth. There was the faint smell of lemon. She followed the scent until she found a vein of books hidden near the wall. She took a small spade from her tool bag and started clearing away the dirt from the top of the dozens of books. It took her three hours, but eventually she found the book she was looking for.

Separating a book from the earth required a precision tool. It was easy to make mistakes. Several times in the past, she had cut the pages and the words had bled everywhere.

She probed the dirt at the edge of the cover with her book scalpel. After a few delicate cuts, she removed the book from the ground and looked at the cover.

The Gentle Ladies’ Field Guide to Animal Spirits.

She leafed through it until she found an illustration that matched the sketch on the wanted poster.

The golden spectral monkey.

She carefully excised the page and smeared it with the ghost blood from her handkerchief. The page transformed into a spectral monkey.

“Do you know who I want you to kill?” she asked.

The monkey nodded. “I need gold to make me corporeal,” it said.

Elisabeth grabbed her pair of scissors. She was about to cut a lock of her hair, but the monkey shook its head.

“I require greater payment,” it said.

It pointed at her heart.


Every month Elisabeth attends the Bearbrass Gentle Ladies Society Monthly Ball. She is not nearly as graceful a dancer as she used to be. A wooden heart is not an ideal substitute for one made of gold. But she is still the most beautiful girl in all of Bearbrass and many men want to dance with her.

They ask if they can have the last dance, but Elisabeth apologizes.

She always leaves the last dance free.

 

THE END

Narrated by Graeme Dunlop

Listen above or download here.

Show Notes

Today we present Aidan Doyle’s story, Mr. Nine and the Gentleman Ghost, which was originally published on the Weird Tales web site. Aidan’s been with before; he wrote Episode 31, Inksucker. Aidan is an Australian writer and computer programmer who loves travelling and has visited more than 80 countries. His experiences include teaching English in Japan, interviewing ninjas in Bolivia and going ten-pin bowling in North Korea. His stories have been published in Lightspeed, Strange Horizons and Fantasy.

Theme music is “Appeal To Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.

Read Along

Click here to read the text of the story

Episode 72: The Dun Horse by Edward Ahern

Show Notes

This is a substantially rewritten version of “The Dun Horse.” This tale was collected on the Pawnee reservation by George Bird Grinnel and published in 1889 in his book titled “Pawnee Hero stories and Folk Tales.”

An Indian named Eagle Chief (warrior name White Eagle) on learning of Grinnel’s mission said:

“It is good and it is time. Already the old things are being lost, and those who knew the secrets are many of them dead. If we had known how to write we would have put these things down and they would not have been forgotten. But we could not write and these stories were handed down from one to another. The old men told their grandchildren and so the secrets and the stories and the doings of long ago have been handed down. It may be that they have changed as they passed from father to son, and it is well that they should be put down so that our children, when they are like the white people, can know what were their fathers’ ways.

This is my homage to “The Dun Horse.” I hope you like it too.  ~EWA


The Dun Horse

by Edward Ahern

Long ago in the Pawnee tribe there lived an old woman and her grandson, a boy of sixteen. These two had no living relatives in the tribe and were very poor. The rest of the tribe despised them for having nothing, not even family.

The old woman and the boy always stayed behind when the tribe moved to new hunting grounds so they could search through the trash of the abandoned camp for things the other Pawnees had thrown away- shreds of buffalo robes, worn-out moccasins with holes in them and chunks of old bone and gristle.

One day as the old woman and her grandson followed behind on the trail of their tribe, they walked up to an old, bony dun horse which had been left to die by another band of Indians.

The dun horse swayed, worn out, thin, blind in one eye, with a sore back and swollen foreleg. The horse was in such poor condition that none of the Indians had been willing to drive it along with them on the trail.

But the old woman and the boy were not so fussy. They were used to having almost nothing. “Grandmother,” said the boy, “let’s put a rope on this old horse and have him carry our pack.”

And the old woman tied their small pack on the sore backed horse. They started to drive the horse along with them, but he limped badly and could only stumble along slowly.

Their Pawnee tribe had moved along the North Platte river until they came to a place now called Court House Rock. A week after they had pitched their camp the old woman and the boy slowly walked in with the dun horse.

Two days later some young braves who had been sent out to scout for buffalo came riding quickly back into the camp. They had found a large herd of buffalo nearby, and among the buffalos was a spotted calf, a rare, rare thing.

A robe made from a spotted calf is ti-war’-uka-ti, big medicine. When the head chief of the Pawnee tribe heard of the calf he ordered his crier to go through the camp and call out that the man who killed the spotted calf should have the chief’s daughter for a wife.

The other chiefs agreed to a race to the buffalo herd from the village, so that the man with the fastest horse would be most likely to kill the calf and win the daughter.

The young braves picked out their fastest horses and got ready for the hunt, even the poor boy on his dun horse. The rich young braves sat on their quick horses and laughed at the poor boy on his sway backed dun horse. “See, this is the horse that will catch up to the spotted calf!”

The poor boy was ashamed and rode slowly away to one side of the crowd of horsemen so he would not hear the cruel things the braves said about him.

After they had ridden away the dun horse stopped suddenly, turned his head around and spoke to the boy. “Take me down to the creek and plaster me all over with mud. Cover my face and neck, and body and legs.”

The boy was startled when he heard the horse speak, but he did as he was asked. After the boy had slapped mud all over the horse’s body the dun said, “Mount me now, but do not ride back to the warriors who laugh at you. Stay here until they begin their charge to the feeding grounds.”

Soon all the fine horses were drawn up in a line, prancing. At last the old crier yelled “Loo-ah” – Go!

The Pawnee warriors leaned forward, yelled and galloped off. Suddenly, far to the right, the dun horse was seen. He did not seem to gallop, but to sail through the tall grasses. The dun horse soon passed the other horses and rode into the buffalo herd. The horse charged past many buffalo and rode up to the spotted calf. The poor boy shot his arrow, U-ra-rish! The arrow flew hard and straight and the spotted calf fell.

The boy drew another arrow, U-ra-rish! and killed a fat cow that was running by. Then he jumped off the dun horse and began to skin the spotted calf before any of the other warriors could ride up.

When the other warriors rode up and saw the old dun horse, how changed it was. It pranced all about the dead calf and would barely stand still. Its back was clean and shiny, its legs were strong and both eyes were clear and bright.

After skinning the spotted calf and the cow the boy loaded the meat and cow robe on the dun horse and lashed the spotted robe on top. Even under the heavy load of meat and hides the dun horse pranced and was skittish.

As the boy was leading the horse back to camp a rich young chief rode up to him and offered the boy twelve good horses for the spotted robe, for the young chief wanted to marry the head chief’s beautiful daughter. But the boy just laughed at the chief and would not sell the robe.

Other warriors had ridden back to camp first. One rode up to the old woman and said, “Your grandson has killed the spotted calf!”

The old woman got angry. “Why do you tell me this? You should be ashamed to make fun of my grandson because he is poor.”

“What I tell you is true,” said the warrior and rode off.

A little later another brave rode up to the old woman, “Your grandson has killed the spotted calf.” The old woman tried not to cry. She felt bad that everyone was making fun of her grandson.

Soon the boy walked into camp leading the dun horse up to his grandmother’s lodge. It was a little lodge, just enough for two people, made of old pieces of skin the grandmother had found, tied together with strings of rawhide and sinew. It was the worst lodge in the camp.

The boy stopped at the lodge and when the grandmother saw the dun horse loaded with meat and robes she could not speak for shock.

“Here,” the boy said, “I have brought you plenty of meat to eat, and here is a cow robe that you can have for yourself. Haul the meat from the horse.”

And the old woman laughed, for her heart was glad. But when she tried to pull the meat from the dun horse’s back the horse jumped and bucked as if wild. The woman could not believe it was the same horse. Finally the boy had to unload the horse himself, although it was not his work, for it would not allow the woman to come near.

That night when the boy walked out of the lodge to check on the dun horse, the horse spoke to him again. “Wat-ti-nes Chah-ra-rat wa-ta. Tomorrow Sioux come, a large war party. They will attack the camp, and there will be a great fight. When the Sioux are lined up for battle, jump on me and ride into the middle of them. Ride to the head chief, their greatest warrior, count coup on him, kill him, and ride back. Do this four times, count coup on three more of the bravest Sioux and kill them, but do not ride out a fifth time. If you return a fifth time you will either die or you will lose me.”

The boy promised. The next day, as the horse had said, the Sioux came to the camp and formed a line of battle. The boy jumped on the dun horse and charged into them.

When the Sioux saw that the boy was trying to strike their chief they shot arrows so thickly the sky was black, but none touched him. And the boy counted coup on the chief, killed him, and rode back. Four times the boy did this, as the horse had told him.

But the Sioux and the Pawnee kept fighting and the boy stood back next to the dun horse watching the battle. At last he felt ashamed that he was not in the battle and thought, “I have been in battle four times and have beaten four Sioux. I am not hurt anywhere; why can I not go in again?”

The boy jumped on the dun horse and rode back into the battle. As soon as he rode in a Sioux chief shot an arrow that struck the dun horse behind the forelegs, piercing him through. The dun horse fell down dead, but the boy got up and fought his way back through the Sioux to the Pawnees.

After the dun horse had dropped the Sioux said among themselves, “This horse was like a man. He was brave. He was not like a horse.” So they did as they would do to a brave man, and cut the horse into pieces with their knives and hatchets.

The Pawnee and the Sioux fought all day long, but toward nightfall the Sioux warriors broke and fled.

That night after the battle the boy left the village to mourn for his horse. He went to where his horse lay, gathered the pieces and put them together in a pile. Then the boy went to the top of a nearby hill, pulled his spotted calf robe over his head and began to mourn for his horse.

As he crouched there a great wind storm roared over him in rushing waves, and after the wind came rain. The boy looked down at what was left of his horse, but could barely see it through the rain. Then the rain passed.

Then came another roaring wind and , after it, again rain. The boy looked down at the pile and through the rain it looked like a horse lying down, but he could barely see through the driving water.

A third storm came, like the others, and when he looked down at the horse he thought he could see the tail move and the horse’s head lift from the ground. The boy was afraid, and thought about running away, but stayed to mourn his horse.

A fourth storm came and as the rain pounded down the dun horse raised up on its forelegs, looked around, and stood up.

Although filled with fear the boy left the hilltop and walked down to the horse. The dun horse said, “You have seen how it has been this day; and from this you may know how it will be after. Ti-ra-wa has been good and let me come back to you. After this, do what I tell you, not any more, not any less.”

And the horse said, “Now lead me away from the camp until we are behind that big hill. Leave me there tonight and in the morning come for me.”

The boy did as he was told, and when he came back in the morning he saw the dun horse with a fine white gelding, handsomer than any other horse in the tribe.

For ten nights the boy did this and each morning he found another horse, a black gelding, a bay, a roam, a blue spotted; all finer than any horses the Pawnees had ever before had in their tribe.

Now the boy was rich, and he married the beautiful daughter of the head chief. In time the boy was made head chief. He always took good care of his old grandmother, and kept her in his own lodge until she died. He had many children, and one day, when his oldest son died, he wrapped him in the spotted calf robe,

The dun horse was never ridden except at a feast or a dance, and was led around wherever the chief went. The horse lived in the Pawnee camps for many years and became very old. And at last he died.

Genres:

Episode 71: Now Cydonia


Now Cydonia

by Rick Kennett

Cadet Cy De Gerch bounced forward into the desert darkness, raised her arms in a defensive posture and, as best as a fourteen year could, barked, “Halt! Who goes there!”

There was no one there. There never was.

Cy jumped back, a slow leap in the low gravity, to her original position on the perimeter, her vacsuit moving easy like a second skin, to watch and wait and break the boredom as best she could until relieved. Out there was the desert she had trekked the past two years with her section of Martian Star Corps cadets. Out there was the countryside of Mars – cold and red and a billion years dead, littered with rocks, pocked with craters, filled with myths and ghost stories, most of which Cy didn’t really believe. Sergeant Kreeng – Old Get-It-Right – had known what he was doing when he’d set them perimeter guard duty consisting mostly of doing nothing. It was, she knew, a discipline of the mind.

Her watch arc was to the south, but occasionally she took long looks into the west. About five kilometres in that direction, according to her estimation, lay The City, one of the famous Cydonia formations. She’d been responsible for navigation on this leg of the exercise, a long trek up from Water Bore 36 at McLauglin Crater in the south. Despite having arrived long after dark, she was sure they were camped dead in the heart of Cydonia.

Knew it.

The night sky of Mars was deepest black, studded with vivid red blue orange yellow gleams, alien to the skies of Earth. Beneath these stars, Cy paced back and forth, trying to kill time by puzzling out a song about Cydonia, using what she knew, what she thought she knew. In short order she had:

Cydonia!

Plateau north on Acidalia Plain

Pioneers there never seen again

The City and The Fortress and Monkey Face

An ape stone head staring into space

Let me tell you people it’s a weird shit place

Cydonia!

Fruit Bowl Crater and Parallel Tracks

Natural forms or artifacts?

The Novak Group –

The lyrics faltered. What about the Novak Group? Were they the pioneers who had disappeared? Or did they just die, buried in a sand storm, uncovered in another? Too many stories, too many myths. She liked that line about ‘ape stone face staring into space’ but the rest didn’t seem to work.

Dissatisfied with her efforts, she scanned the desert again. Rust-red in the day, it lay now out to the horizon as black as the sky. Even the light-boost in her helmet visor revealed only grey rocks and grey sand. Nothing moved. Nothing showed on her scanner image.

Compelled by old instincts and empty fears, Cy turned and scanned inside the perimeter. Nothing was creeping up on her. Nothing could be. At her back were the ordered rows of inflated plastic tents, their interiors warm and full of air with a sleeping cadet in each. In another hour she’d be relieved and could crawl back into her own tent and for a while be outside of her suit, comfortably horizontal.

She stared out into the night. Nothing really ever to guard against. But don’t let old Get-It-Right catch you catching Zs as you watched the desert, red and dead a billion years, cluttered with rocks and myths and ghost stories not really believed. Just as she didn’t really believe the naked figure flickering out of the dark towards her.

Cy flinched, staring stupidly as the thing rushed in out of the grey middle distance of her light boost, narrow-bodied, red-tinted, hunched and running skipping jumping straight for her, a figure naked in this thin, freezing atmosphere.

All training, all thought fled. To either side of the oncoming vision her visor’s telemetry read-outs throbbed with sudden increases in heart and breathing. She didn’t see them, only the red figure, rushing at her in a flickering sprint, closer now, faster now, moving in a jerky series of still images, a thin leaping caricature of a human figure, now here, now there, to the left, to the right, chalk-line arms and legs red like the blowing sand swirling through its sketched-out body.

Brain and limbs came together at last, and Cy moved, jumped to intercept. Too late. The figure dodged past her in a stutter of movement, stepping, leaping, dancing, twisting in a rush of still poses, there and gone.

Catching nothing, falling forward in dream-like slow motion, she somersaulted. Landed on her feet. Turned. Just in time to see the figure flickering in and out between the tents as though moving through an intermittent existence.

Hitting the general frequency, Cy yelled words she thought she’d never hear herself say: “Guard Point South! Intruder alert! Intruder alert!”

The response from Sergeant Kreeng was instantaneous. “What do you see?”

Christ! Doesn’t he ever sleep? “De Gerch at point south. Someone just ran through the camp!” She fumbled with the scan replay.

“Ran? Can you identify?”

“Negative, Sarg. It was –“ She tried to stop herself, but the impossible word slipped out — “naked.”

“Say again?”

“Negative, Sarg. No I.D.”

Soft scraping sounds, the odd grunt in her earpiece. Cy grimaced as she tried not to picture Kreeng in his skivvies donning his vacuum suit.

“Where’s your contact now?” he said.

She boosted gain on her visor, but could no longer see the figure among the tents, some of which were already depressurizing as the occupant prepared to emerge.

“Lost it, Sergeant. Last seen running north-east through the camp.”

Kreeng opened com links to the other three guards, north, east and west. None had seen anything.

“Cadet De Gerch, pump up your best image and jump it across to me.”

“Doing it now, Sergeant.”

“Good. I’ll make a starship officer of you yet.”

But the auto-select on Cy’s scanner was coming up blank. There was no image to select. At once she started a diagnoses check, but this also came up negative.

“I’m waiting, Cadet.”

“Sergeant … there’s nothing here.”

Even as she said this, checking the system again, she braced herself for the famous Get-It-Right bawling out that was sure to come. But all that came over the general frequency was the noise of thirty cadets, male and female, preparing to defend themselves: suits zipping, air sucking back into bottles, tents deflating, muffled cursing and bitching.

A moment more and the sergeant himself was beside her, his red vacsuit a head taller than hers and much more augmented. He said nothing but only peered into the south, although she’d plainly told him the figure had been heading north-east through the camp. Sergeant Kreeng prowled off around the perimeter, his helmet swinging left and right, calling the other three sentries again. He then ordered the rest of the section to spread out, crank up their visor light boosts and report any sightings.

Eventually he returned to Cy De Gerch and made the half-twist gesture with his hand to indicate use of immediate area channel.

“Why did you say you saw a naked figure?” he asked her, not in his usual growl but in an odd, softer tone.

“Did I say naked?”

“I can play it back if you want to deny it.”

“I’m not denying it, Sarg. I dunno … it was an impression, I suppose. I got an impression he was naked.”

He?”

“Sir?”

“You said He.”

Cy shrugged, a gesture almost lost in her vacsuit. “It had no genitalia and there was no real body form to speak of.”

“So why did you call it He?”

Cy hesitated. “Perhaps it was the face.”

“Describe it.”

“I can’t, Sarg … not exactly. Just thought I glimpsed a face, you know, with a nose, a mouth, two little eyes. Sort of looked like a man, but more like a stick figure man come to life.”

“What colour was this stick figure man?”

“Red.”

“Sure?”

“This is the one thing I’m positive about. Red. It was red. Same as the sand.”

A short silence, then Kreeng said, “How did it move?”

She told him as best she could, not expecting to be believed.

Whether or not she was, all Kreeng did was open the general frequency again.

“Belay scanning! Pack your tents and get ready to move. There’s a sand storm coming. The City formation at Cydonia will provide shelter. From there we can get air-lifted if need be.”

“But, Sarg, what did I see?” said Cy.

“Something I’ve seen myself long ago, Cadet. Now get moving before you get buried!”

Bouncing back to her tent lying deflated on the sand, Cy checked her vacsuit’s computer for weather information, downloaded frequently from satellites. Up until now there’d been no indication of an approaching sand storm. What the hell was Get-It-Right worried about?

The computer confirmed clear skies. Its latest reading, only minutes old, reported no storm activity over all of the north-west of the planet. The noonday temperature tomorrow at Cydonia was expected to be -25° Celsius. It was, after all, mid-Summer in the northern hemisphere.

Martian weather patterns had never been thoroughly understood, it was true, and what terraforming was doing to it could only be guessed at. But to suddenly announce a storm in the face of scans and satellite reports saying otherwise seemed to Cy wantonly contrary.

“Single file,” Sergeant Kreeng called. “Link up!”

Drawing tethers from their suits, each cadet attached themselves to the cadet in front – standard procedure in low visibility. With their helmet lights cutting through a clear night, the section loped due west in that odd Martian march between a step and a jump. Cy, stuffing her tent into her vacsuit backpack, hurried after them, clipping her tether cable onto the tail-end’s vacsuit.

“Who’s that?” Cy asked over the immediate area channel.

“Me.” The figure ahead of her turned half about so that the name Z. CHEPTEP stencilled on the helmet above the visor came into view. The helmet lit from within, showing the long cheek bone features, aquiline nose and dark eyes of another fourteen year old girl. She smiled, pulled a face and turned off her interior light.

“Hey, Zoe,” said Cy.

“So you saw the Sandman, did you?”

“The what?”

“The Sandman. There’s a storm coming.”

“There’s no storm,” said Cy, adding a little snappish, “And what the hell’s this Sandman? You having a dig at me for waking you all up on a false alarm?”

“Not if we avoid being buried in a storm. Ain’t you never heard of the Sandman?”

“No, I ain’t never heard of the Sandman.”

“The Sandman is the stalking red thing that brings the killer sand storms and is a harbinger of death.”

“And the Easter Bunny is the hopping furry thing that brings killer chocolate and is the harbinger of acne. Breeze it, Zoe! Sounds the sort of fable parents tell their kids to teach them survival habits.”

“Then what do you think you saw just now?”

“Who knows.”

“Kreeng seems to.”

“Yeah, but nothing recorded on my scanner. I reckon I was just staring out at the desert too long, and old Get-It-Right is just getting it wrong.”

“It’s Cydonia,” said Zoe significantly.

“What do you mean?”

“If weirdness exists anywhere on Mars it exists in Cydonia. If the Sandman lives anywhere on Mars he lives in Cydonia. It’s the living heart of this dead planet. This place with its pyramids and monuments is malignant – always has been since it claimed the Novak Expedition way back. Some people only feel that, but you see the Sandman. See the Sandman! Cydonia must like you. You’re simpatico, ya know? We’ll have to call you Cy of Cydonia. Like Rutland of Jutland.”

“Who was that?”

“Some guy named Rutland … at the Battle of Jutland.”

“What did he do?”

“I dunno … stuff. We’re not studying Jutland till next semester.”

“I don’t know why they teach us old naval battles. It’s two dimensional, nothing like the real battles we’ll be fighting one day in space.”

“Probably the same reason they make us do desert navigation exercises like this. Basics, right? The way I see it, they figure that if you’re gunna get lost in a 2D landscape there’s no way they’re letting you anywhere near a starship’s 5D astrogation suite.”

“And what if you start seeing little red men leaping out at you from the desert? What won’t they let you near then?”

“Everything but the psycho ward I should think. But don’t worry about that, Cy. Check your scan. What’s that at one-seventy degrees?”

Cy brought the scan image up onto her visor. About thirty kilometres to the south a fuzziness had appeared in the last few minutes, small but growing. A switch to the latest weather information reported sudden shifts in wind patterns to the south.

“Looks like we’ve got some weather coming, Cy. Convinced now?”

“Only of the unpredictability of Martian weather, not the Martian bogeyman.” She ranged her scan west and picked up the formation known as The City — shelter of a kind from the coming sand storm.

“It’s the –“ Zoe began, but was interrupted by Sergeant Kreeng cutting through on general frequency.

“Sand storm to the south. Coming up fast! Everybody keep a check on your heat exchanges. Don’t let ‘em get clogged or you’ll be cooked in your suits before you know it.”

Within minutes the storm swept up and engulfed them like a blood-red tsunami. Even at speeds in excess of 200 kilometres per hour, the thin winds of Mars hardly buffered their bodies, though sand rattled loud against face visors.

Cy could now only make out Zoe as a red blur, while those further up the line were no longer visible at all. Static charges of moving particles disrupted communications and smudged scan images to shifting blots and disjointed lines.

Barely glimpsed, Kreeng was there and gone, checking connections, shepherding them along.

“Get it right,” Cy muttered to herself. The storm grew in intensity. Everything outside her visor went dark red, then just dark as the sand smothered out the helmet light. She turned it off. “Zoe,” she called into the darkness. “Zoe, do you hear me?”

If her friend answered it was lost in a rising, faraway howl filling Cy’s phones, sounding like but couldn’t possibly be the wind. In this ghost of an atmosphere Martian winds blew forever silent.

Nothing outside but the dark, nothing to hear but the interminable scratching of sand against her visor and helmet, and that faraway hollow howling in her phones. Nothing of reality but her feet hitting the sand in long, rhythmic lopes.

Keep going, keep going.

A feeling of isolation, all claustrophobic and suffocating, bore down on her. Only the thought that shelter was nearby – just up ahead, just a few more steps – kept her going. She dared not look at her visor clock for fear of seeing that Time had stopped, that the universe had ceased to be. It was easy to think that way.

Keep going, keep going.


There was nothing but red static on her scan, yet she kept it focused ahead. Even in all this flying sand The City should soon reappear. The landscape there was sudden and large, a hodgepodge of monoliths literally erupting out of Cydonia, three times the size of the pyramids of Earthly Egypt.

Yet for long minutes nothing showed, and the wind blew on and on. Sand blind as she was, out of communication and with no way of telling how far they’d travelled, it wasn’t long before the thought came creeping that maybe they were lost. Despite rumours to the contrary among the cadets, Sergeant Kreeng was human and as liable as anyone to errors of judgement.

Even as these thoughts were born they died. On her visor a few steady diagonal lines began to appear in the chaotic scanner image. Gradually they grew more numerous and defined as the visual echo strengthened. A few minutes later Cy passed into the lee of a monolith, seen only as a chaos of echoes on her scan, and out of the direct violence of the wind. She switched on her light and could just make out her hand waved in front of her visor. On her vacsuit’s general frequency, however, the phantom wind still howled. All around her the sand, fine as sifting dust, swirled in the air. But further along it was bound to be clearer. Zoe Cheptep would soon re-emerge ahead of her and this howling in her ears end.

Deeper into the shelter of The City, the redness outside her visor began to fall away. Within a few loped steps it was only a thin haze.

The slanting walls of The City loomed in far rosy distance either side as far as her light could reach. Her scan showed a mile wide vista, a rock-strewn valley crooked with haphazard pyramids. But Kreeng, Zoe and the other cadets had disappeared.

A quick check of her vacsuit tether cable found it unbroken. Even the clip she’d hooked onto Zoe’s suit dangled undamaged and open at the end of it.

Cy stared down at that opened clip, puzzled, frightened. Calling on all frequencies, again and again, she heard only the howl of a wind that couldn’t be. Unbidden, the words of her song came again to mind:

The City and the Fortress and Monkey Face. An ape stone head staring into space. Let me tell you people it’s a weird shit place

Cy gazed about at the vast pyramids either side, the crooked valley they formed ahead of her. “No. There is a reason,” she told herself. “Don’t give in to fancies.” Her voice loud inside her helmet was somehow comforting, gave her mind something real to hang onto.

Somehow Zoe had lost the tether connection. That was it. Zoe and Sergeant Kreeng and the rest of the cadets were elsewhere in The City.

Had to be.

Yet that ‘somehow’ about the lost tether connection bothered her. Zoe’s suit hook could have broken … well, it could’ve. But she knew how unlikely it was.

Cy swept her helmet’s light into the darkness above as if seeking her lost comrades up there, seeing only the great rock sides soaring upward at angles of between 20 and 25 degrees. Around midway they were lost among the rushing red of the storm still blasting overhead, surging in her light beam like a crazy upside down sea, crimson and angry.

3D studies and virtual plug-ins didn’t begin to give the reality of Cydonia, nor the sense of insignificance engendered by standing there alone among these immense, ancient things. Up close and real Cy felt her convictions about Cydonia shake. She began to understand now why the 20th and 21st centuries had thought The City, the massive D&M Pyramid, the three-walled Fortess and the other formations of Cydonia might be an artificial complex of monuments and structures: they stood unnatural and sudden upon the Cydonia Plateau, their angles sharp, their sides so straight, their positions almost arranged.

An echo, small and discrete, appeared on her scan, appearing to have emerged out of nowhere about half a kilometre down the pyramidal valley.

Cy advanced in slow bounds, narrowing her light, focusing it on the scan target.

A vacsuited figure stood motionless in the beam.

“Zoe?” Cy called. “Zoe! Hey!” Not trusting radio to the static, she flashed her helmet light several times as well.

No response.

Wanting answers, needing society in this empty city of giants, Cy loped toward the distant figure. At the same instant Zoe began to move away. Taking small steps at first, but gradually increasing the stride.

“Zoe! Wait!” Lengthening her jumping steps, Cy was beginning to catch up when Zoe darted right and with several long leaps reached the base of the nearest pyramid and began to climb with spring-heeled agility.

Cy bounced to a stop, uncertain what to do. Shouldn’t she find Kreeng first? That would be the proper thing to do. Get it right. But that impossible wind still howled in her phones, and Zoe seemed very disorientated, ignoring her signals and scrambling up the pyramid in such frenzied fashion. Perhaps her heat exchange was clogged and her vacsuit, unable to radiate body heat away, was frying her brain, causing erratic behavior. In which case –

Keeping Zoe in her beam, Cy took off in pursuit, hitting the sloping side, boots and gloves gripping the rock. Part of the exercise to Cydonia was to explore its pyramids, so she was prepared.

Zoe was a good way ahead and above, still climbing steadily and only a few long steps now from the churning lower edge of the storm. Once Zoe reached that Cy knew she would lose her. The sand would smother the light and all would be darkness again. Still, this was no time for making excuses.

Zoe disappeared into the racing sand without slackening pace. Too long a time afterwards – twenty seconds or more – Cy followed her in. The storm closed in again and once more blinded her. The howling in her ears turned to a muted screech. Someone briefly took her hand in a tight grasp.

“Who’s that?” Cy shouted, pulling away. The grasp lifted from her hand and the radio howl gave no answer. She continued on.

A face appeared at her visor, a naked face pushing close into hers, there and gone.

She swung an arm into the storm, touching nothing, though for an instant something once more touched her.

Telemetry read-outs either side of her visor showed sudden spikes in blood pressure, heart and pulse which were already well above normal. Somewhere in her head a thin, colourless voice was insisting, runawayrunawayrunaway. As best she could she ignored it. As a Star Corps cadet, trained in Martian survival, she knew there was nothing to fear inside a Cydonian sand storm.

Wasn’t there? Wasn’t there?

Spurred on by courage born of fear, Cy continued the ascent.

Once more her hands and arms were plucked, once more the face came, staring in at her. Then another face and another, flashing out of the dark, pulling back into it. Cy tried to catch expressions, but they were too brief, too sketchy, like the face of the Sandman, rushing up at her out of the empty Martian night, the harbinger of the storm.

The red stalking thing, Zoe had said. A harbinger of death.

Presently the darkness took on a growing rosy hue. Cy’s heart gave a leap, a sudden jag on her telemetry. She was climbing through the upper reaches of the storm. At last it was clearing. And that glow … dawn was breaking over Cydonia.

She pushed out into sunlight, gasping a deep breath as if emerging from the drowning depths. The howl in her phones faded away. She flicked on her emergency beacon. Sergeant Kreeng would hear it as soon as he too cleared the storm.

Only metres above her the pyramid came to an abrupt top. Moments more and Cy stood in early morning light streaming red-tinted across a level space, almost a perfect square several metres on a side. The ragged remains of the storm were scudding away to the north. Spread out below lay the formations of the Cydonia Plateau, long shadowed in the dawn. Twenty kilometres to the south-east towered the D&M Pyramid, five flat sides, sharp angles, twice as big as anything in The City. Eastward at the same distance stood Novak Tholus, conical and peaked like a great witch’s hat, wrapped around with its enigmatic ramp to nowhere. North of Novak, likewise twenty kilometres from The City, lay The Face mesa with the sun rising red-yellow directly above it. Upon it Cy could make out the profile of something less simian, more human, evil and ugly. The forehead bulged with an abrupt hill and the deep ravine of the mouth was an eternal grimace.

Transfixed by the view, it took her a moment to spot the figure standing at the far side of the square, obscured in the glare of the rising sun.

“Zoe!” Cy called.

Still there was no response. The figure stood perfectly motionless. At once Cy feared that her friend was unconscious or even dead, standing upright and cooked alive in her suit. Yet Cy did not rush across but advanced cautiously for reasons she could not really explain to herself. Up close now she saw Zoe’s heat exchange, located above the backpack, was clear of sand.

“Zoe?” said Cy again, and touched her on the shoulder.

Zoe turned around easier than she should have, as if lighter than she should be.

  1. CHEPTEP showed on her helmet. Below it in the visor no long cheek bone features, no aquiline nose and no dark eyes looked back at her. The visor was filled with red churning sand slowly, endlessly blowing …

Hollow howling resounded in Cy’s phones, a sound loud and lost and faraway. The figure, no longer vacsuited reality but sketchy and half finished, dodged past her in a stutter of interrupted motion, stepping, leaping, dancing, twisting in a rush of still poses, there and gone: the far side, the opposite corner, almost within reach, by the edge, in the centre, there and there and there, twitching madly down the side of the pyramid.

“Zoe,” Cy whispered, watching her friend disappear into the Cydonian landscape below. The impossible wind was her only answer, and even this soon faded into silence.

How long later that silence was broken by the harshness of Sergeant Kreeng’s voice, she could not say. The sun was much further up the sky and Kreeng was telling her to “Hold on!” Then her view of sun and desert and enigmatic structures jerked as a line clipped to her vacsuit pulled her into the belly of a rescue craft she had not even noticed hovering above.

Where was Zoe Cheptep, they asked her.

Down there, was all Cy could say, and she pointed to a viewscreen image of Cydonia and its enigmatic structures.

From the higher elevation of the rescue ship The Face, forever staring up into space, looked to Cy even more evil and ugly. There in the deep ravine of the mouth … was it just shadow? Yes, surely just shadow. It couldn’t have really been the hint of a smile.

A search party of Star Corps Rangers assembled at the airlock to be briefed by Sergeant Kreeng before their drop to the surface. Naked of his helmet, he was a young man of twenty-five, an old man of experience with a look at once grim and vulnerable.

Down on Cydonia a second storm front was approaching, sweeping in from the south in two broad bands, east and west, engulfing the region like pincers. Somewhere down there Zoe Cheptep was still missing. Somewhere down there the Sandman skipped and jumped ahead of the new storm.

That this was so Cy De Gerch no longer doubted. What form did it now take? she wondered. What face did it now wear?

Episode 70: A Song for the Season by Eliza Hirsch


A Song for the Season

by Eliza Hirsch

The sun came out today, and for the first time in five months our song returned. It changes once every three years. This time, the melody sounds slower, a little bit sad. Long, low notes shake my chest when I stand too close to the forest’s edge. The last song was a bright, energetic tune; before that it was like water tumbling over rocks in a wild river. Each song was as unique as the girl who gave their life for them.

I worked in the garden, stringing twine for a pea trellis, listening to the song and basking in the warmth of the sun. Louder than the wistful tune was the sound of my younger brother, Allard, chopping wood along the side of the house. Our parents were in town, mother checking on the winter’s newborns while father delivered bread to neighbors. Spring had come at last, and we were happy to be outside.

We were not the only ones. Allard’s axe stopped swinging and fell to the ground with a thunk. I looked up from my knot work as he shouted out a greeting. A familiar voice answered him and I dropped my twine, eager to see the face I had missed so much during the cold months.

“Lily!” I shouted, running to meet my friend, nearly colliding with Allard. She had a basket of onions in one hand, and a brilliant smile on her face. She wore a plain white dress and a brown shawl wrapped around her shoulders, but her golden hair caught the sun and shimmered, so she looked topped in precious metals. I wiped my hands on my skirt and pushed around my brother.

“You’re so pale,” Lily exclaimed, and kissed me on the cheek. I tried not to blush at the feel of her lips. Failing that, I turned away from Allard’s prying eyes and instead took Lily’s basket.

“And you’re so pink,” I said, brushing some of the dirt from the onions’ papery skin.

“Ho, there, Lily,” Allard walked over to us, swinging his axe in a casual, low arc. “Glad to see you haven’t frozen this winter.”

“No one ever freezes, Allard,” I said, moving to go inside.

As we passed him I noticed his eyes linger on Lily, and I thought I saw a trace of flush on his cheeks. He glared at me and muttered, “You might freeze if I lock you out in the snow.”

“He’s grown,” Lily said once we were inside. I shrugged; I didn’t care what Allard did, as long as he stayed more or less out of my way. I set the onions on the kitchen table and crossed to the window where I could see my trellis and the fat, gloating sun. I closed my eyes and sighed.

“Isn’t it lovely?” I said. “It feels like the final frost came a week early.”

“You say that every year,” Lily said, joining me at the window. Her arm brushed against mine. I unlatched the window and pushed it open to let in the air; with the air came the song, lilting over us like a cool wind. Lily slipped her arm around my waist, and I felt myself stiffen. But Allard’s axe was back at work, and I needn’t have worried about him walking in, seeing her so close to me. I allowed myself to relax into Lily’s embrace.

“It sounds so sad,” she said, leaning her head on my shoulder. I nodded, short of breath. I smelled the sweat on her skin, a slight tang that seemed to make the spring air that much sweeter.

“Neva didn’t want to go,” she said after a while, speaking of the girl who’d run away in the dead of winter. Lily tightened her grasp on my waist and turned her head, so her lips pressed against my neck. “I don’t want to go, either.”

A twig snapped outside and I jolted away from Lily, realizing that I could not hear the rhythmic thumping of Allard’s axe any longer. I peered out the window, but the only movement I saw came from the chicken run at the far end of the garden. I turned my attention to Lily, who was grinning at me as if I’d made a joke.

“Neva was silly and selfish,” I said, swallowing hard when my voice came out wavery. “It’s an honor to be chosen.”

Without one girl’s sacrifice, we would have no song; without the song, we would have no water and no crops. We would have no spring.

We would have no life.

“Do you believe what the elders say, about what happens to the girls?” Lily asked after a while.

“I have no reason not to trust them,” I said as I brushed a stray piece of hair off her forehead. They said that the chosen girl would protect and cultivate the village’s crop for three years. Then, when her time was through, she would be released into the body of a woodland creature, free to come and go as she pleased.

They also said a man loving another man, or a woman loving another woman, was a thing most unnatural. But I loved my parents, and I loved my people; if I could not have Lily for my own—and I could not, even if she craved me, too—then I wanted to serve the village. I hoped I would be chosen.

Lily nodded, still gazing into the garden. We would blossom into womanhood this year, along with several others. When the first snow came one of us would be taken. Lily’s father, the smithy, would craft a statue in the chosen girl’s form, to be placed in the clearing on the outskirts, near the edge of the forest. I’d never seen him work on the statues, or seen them delivered to the clearing, but every year, without fail, a new statue would be erected. My mother still left flowers at the statue of the girl taken in her year. I wondered if Lily would leave flowers for me.

“Come on,” Lily said, pulling the window shut a bit harder than necessary. “Lets put away those onions, and then you can show me this project you’ve been working on all winter.”

We put the onions in the pantry and I led her back to the room I shared with Allard. It was simple: two narrow beds, a few shelves tacked into the walls near the ceiling and a crude dresser full of clothing and towels for the kitchen. Lily sat on my bed and watched as I stepped up next to her, incautious of my dusty shoes, and took my bag of embroidery off the shelf.

“Here,” I said, pulling out a length of dark blue cloth as I sat next to her. “It isn’t finished, yet.”

She took the bundle, stood, and shook it out. My hoop was still secured to one corner, needle and thread dangling close to the floor. I’d stitched tiny starbursts around the edge, and a series of waxing and waning moons in the center, all from the off-white thread the village’s shepherdess spun. I tucked my hands beneath my thighs, waiting for Lily to say something.

“Oh, Charlotte,” she said finally, sounding breathy. “It’s beautiful.”

I felt my cheeks warm and, before I could think better of it, spouted: “I made it for you. Making it…I mean, because…” I made a helpless motion toward my embroidery hoop.

Lily lowered the cloth and stared at me with wide eyes. I met her gaze for half a heartbeat, and then focused on the floor, on the renewed sound of Allard’s axe, on the weight of my legs against my fingers; anything that wasn’t Lily.

“For me?”

I shrugged. Then she was on me, the tapestry clutched in one hand as she hugged me, hard. Her hair tickled my nose. I closed my eyes, etching the moment in my memory before she released me. Her lip quivered when she looked at me next. She rubbed the cloth between thumb and forefinger. “I might…what if I’m taken? You shouldn’t have–“

“You won’t be chosen,” I said, sounding only slightly more sure than I felt.

The odds were in favor of her being left untouched by the collector. Despite her golden hair and her sky-blue eyes, Lily was rather plain. Her mouth too wide, her jaw too soft. She was vivacious, but the collector would not know that, since he–or it, I wasn’t quite sure–stayed in the woods except for the night of the first snow. The other girls had all been beautiful and slight. Which, I thought, made my own chances fairly good.

Lily didn’t see things this way.

“You can’t know that” she said. “And besides, it would be just as bad if he stole you. How could I live without you around?” She sat back on the bed and rolled her eyes, while my heart beat in my throat. “I would be so bored.”

I laughed, and threw the bag with my thread and needles at her, all the while wondering if her chest ached as deep as my own.


That night, like most nights that winter, I dreamt about Lily.

I stood in the clearing, surrounded by the statues of the song girls. The different metals they’d been cast from gleamed red and gold and orange. They wore wraps about their shoulders; similar to the embroidery piece I’d been making for Lily. These cloths, however, were all different colors and designs. To my left a statue with long, moss-covered hair wore a green shawl decorated with blooming irises; past her, on a statue wearing a long, flowing skirt, hung a wrap the color of the sky, covered with fish and odd designs that looked like spiraled rocks.

In my dream the sun was just setting, turning the sky into a riot of colors that rivaled those of the song girls. The air was warm and dry, like it got during August and September. I had my embroidery piece in my arms; the thread glinted and shimmered with real moonlight.

Behind me, I heard the sound of footsteps. I did not turn. Soon I felt cool hands sliding over my shoulders and moist breath on my neck.

“You came,” Lily said. I nodded. Even in my dreams she stole my voice. She turned me around gently, took the cloth out of my hands and wrapped it about herself so she looked like the statues. She stepped close, her bare toes covering my own, and leaned in. Her lips parted, her breath holding the sweetness of spring. I smiled, knowing what came next. It had been these dreams that held me through the cold months; the possibility that one day I might have courage enough to kiss her while we were awake.

This time something was different. A chill wind whipped up, making the wraps on the statues–and on Lily–crack like gunfire. Above us, the sky began to change, the pink and crimson streaks swirling into a colder gray. Dark, ominous clouds rushed in, threatening rain or snow.

Lily’s lips brushed mine. I wanted to drink in that kiss, but she pulled away and looked at the sky, mouth open. A single, prefect flake of snow spiraled down between us and landed on her tongue.

“He wants me,” she said, her eyes fixed on the path to the forest. Another flake fell and caught in her eyelash. It melted into a tear on her pale cheek. I reached out to her, wanting to comfort her, but my hands found only steel. When she spoke, her voice sounded like the clank of her father’s hammer on his anvil.

“Save me, Charlotte.”

I was helpless, unable to move; I watched Lily become one of the statues, her golden hair worked from strips of brass, her eyes shining like copper coins.

When I woke, Allard was glaring at me, propped up on his elbows.

“You were talking in your sleep again,” he said.

I rolled onto my side, put my back to him. The tendrils of the dream still caressed me, turning my heart cold and fearful. My dreams were usually so sweet, full of Lily’s touch–forbidden though it was–and ending always with a kiss as sweet as nectar. Had Lily’s words the day before affected me that much? Surely she did not mean them. It was natural to be worried about being chosen, but–

“What do you dream about, anyway?” When I didn’t answer, he said: “You kept saying Lily’s name.”

“Shut up, Allard,” I snapped. His laughter filled the room.

“Does Lily know you dream about her?” He got out of his bed and came to kneel on mine. “I bet she doesn’t. I bet she’d be disgusted if she knew what you did to her while you’re asleep.”

“Get off!” I pressed my hands to the wall and kicked out backwards. My heels connected with his ribs and he yelped, scrambling away from me.

“I hope you get chosen, you stupid brat. With you out of the way Lily won’t have anyone around to give her such faithless ideas.”

I turned to him. He wore only a nightshirt and a pair of linen sleep pants; his straw-colored hair was in disarray, his mouth set in a leering grin.

“Oh, I heard everything. She doesn’t want to be chosen. She’d rather us all die–right now, anyway. You’re a bad influence, I think. You–“

“I told her she shouldn’t feel those things,” I protested. Allard shook his head.

“I didn’t hear anything like that.” He glanced at the door as our mother walked past, her shuffling gait so familiar to us both. He crept closer to me, and lowered his voice. “I could get you both in a lot of trouble. But you’re my sister, so I’ll be nice.”

“Allard–“

He held up his hand to silence me. “On one condition. You tell her…” He paused, his thumb pressed to pursed lips. Then, “Tell her I’m strong and capable and–and kind. She’ll like that. It will make things easier when Pa arranges our marriage with the smithy.”

“What?” Lily hadn’t been promised to any man, much less Allard.

“Don’t act stupid,” he said, pulling his shoulders back and sneering down at me. “I was supposed to have Neva, but she ran off. I need someone to fill my house with children.”

I could scarce understand his meaning. Allard bore no hair upon his chin or chest; his arms were still thin, lacking the strength of manhood. And yet he spoke of Lily like they were already betrothed.

But he was right. I’d been stupid not to see. And it only made sense, since Lily was my friend, and closer to Allard than any other girl in the village. The thought made my eyes burn. I pressed my face to my pillow, hoping in vain he would leave me.

“You should just leave her alone,” he said. “I’ll show her myself what a good husband I’ll make.” He smacked my shoulder. “Yeah. You don’t talk to her anymore, unless I’m around, or I’ll tell Papa you’re planning to run.”

“That’s not true!” I flipped over. Allard fell off my bed. He scrambled to his feet, face red, hand raised as if to hit me.

Then our mother called from the kitchen, summoning us to breakfast. Allard turned on his heel and strode out, leaving me shivering beneath my blankets, which felt suddenly too thin, despite the warm sun pouring through the window


I avoided Lily that day, and the next. On the third day she cornered me in our barn, stepping into my light as I cleaned out the damp hay.

“Why doesn’t Allard do this?” she said. I stabbed my pitchfork into a pile and together we watched it droop to the ground.

“Allard went in with our father to prepare for planting,” I said. Lily snorted.

“Sure, and they won’t come back smelling like spirits, right?” She yanked the pitchfork out of the hay and twirled it about, looking at the tines. They were dull; Allard had taken the newer pitchfork and his axe to town for sharpening, leaving me the blunted fork for chores.

Lily let out a low whistle, and I had to look away so I didn’t stare at those lips. The dream of her, and the statues, and her cold metal skin hadn’t returned; the dreams of her kissing me…her hands in my hair–those returned in force. I woke every morning to Allard’s warnings.

“I’m real busy, Lily,” I said, nudging the hay with the toe of my boot. “If I don’t get this done before–“

“Oh, hang ’em,” Lily said. She dropped the pitchfork and grabbed my hand. Her skin was dry, warm; I knew in that instant I would betray my word to Allard, and gladly. “Let’s go to the river. It’s climbing up the banks, since the snow’s melting.”

We would have to walk straight through the center of the village, past the mill and the public house alike, to reach the river. I had to think fast.

“The statues,” I blurted, when she’d started to drag me away. The clearing was just a little ways from the house, far enough to be away from my work, but not so close to town as to risk running across Allard’s path. Lily frowned.

“Why there? It’s so gloomy,” she said. I smiled, remembering my dreams, and their utter lack of gloom.

“The water will be ice cold,” I said. “And I think there will be songbirds in the trees around the statues.”

Her expression lightened a little. “Birds? So soon?”

I nodded. “I heard some this morning when I woke.” Though in truth, it hadn’t been birds, but the sound of the girl’s song grown unnaturally loud. It had faded in the hours since; still, the melody hummed in my ears.

We walked together, a little ways apart, down the muddy path that led from our house toward the village. We passed a shabby red cottage after a few minutes, and paused to exchange a few words with the woman of the house, Lettie Perkins, before hurrying on. We saw no one on the path between the Perkins’ house and the turn off to the statue garden. By the time we reached the edge of the clearing our boots were caked in mud, and the hems of our skirts were heavy with damp and dirt. I stripped down to my shorts, and Lily did the same. We left our skirts and boots and stockings to dry in the sun, draped across the outstretched arms of the statue nearest the path. We wandered in silence through the outer rings of girls and I was reminded of my dream.

Here was the statue of the girl whose hair had been shorn close to her scalp before being chosen; her head was smooth and gray. A little further along was a girl who looked like she must have been eight when chosen, so short she was—her head not even to my shoulder; when I’d asked my mother about her youth she’d laughed and told me only girls of age were ever chosen. In the center of the clearing, set apart from the other statues by a few yards on every side, stood the first song girl.

She wore a skirt that draped around her legs, the folds of the cloth so finely rendered it looked as if it might in a soft breeze. Upon her brow lay a wreath of holly, each leaf stamped with veins and imperfections. Her cheeks were smooth and full, her eyes closed in serene acceptance, her hands upturned as if taking–or giving–something divine. I stood, arrested by the sight of her gleaming in the sun.

“She’s glowing,” Lily said, coming to stand by my side. Her hand brushed against mine; I held very still. Again, she brushed me. “Charlotte…”

I turned my head very slowly. She wasn’t staring at the statue; she was staring at me. My mouth went dry, and I struggled to swallow past the sudden knot in my throat.

“I can’t be like them,” she said. I opened my mouth, meaning to speak, but Lily shook her head. “My mother says it’s an honor, and it wasn’t long ago that I believed that–embraced it even. Charlotte…” She closed what little distance there was between us. I smelled her sweat where it clung to the thin fabric of her underclothes. I shivered; my hands clenched into tight fists. “There are some things I cannot leave behind.”

“You would not be…” Unthinking, I rose up on my toes so our eyes were level, then leaned in and kissed her.

The world disappeared. My dreams were mere shadows of this moment. I had always imagined her lips would be soft, but this was like pressing warm silk to my mouth. Her hair tickled my face, wafted toward me in the breeze. My hands unclenched and slid around her full hips and onto her back, which she arched against me. I felt my sanity drain away. In that moment I understood with sudden, crystal clarity that I could not leave her. Not for Allard or the village or for anyone else. Not even for my own parents, who’d bred me and borne me.

I belonged to her.

It was not until I felt a searing pain in my calf that I realized we were not alone.

Lily screamed; I collapsed, an odd tugging sensation in my leg. I twisted as I landed and saw Allard standing behind me, his hands wrapped around the handle of the pitchfork he’d taken for sharpening. His face was flushed, his mouth hung open and his eyes were wide with–fear? Or triumph?

“Lettie told me I’d find you here.” He yanked the pitchfork out of my leg. I felt the metal tine scrape against bone, and a flood of black threatened to overcome me. I held on to the sound of Lily’s cries, trying to stay conscious. If Allard went after her–I wrenched my eyes open and saw Allard lower his weapon.

“I didn’t mean to…I told you to stay away from her.” He spoke as if pleading with me, staring at my leg. I rolled onto my back, teeth clamped together to hold in a scream of pain.

“And I told you–you can’t threaten me,” I said, though it took most of my strength to do so. Allard’s mouth twisted. He tightened his grip on the pitchfork and brought it up, threatening me. A flutter of movement to my side caught my attention, and his as well.

Lily was a blur of white cotton, a streak of rage. She threw herself at Allard, hands twisted into claws. He reacted with what I assume was instinct, raising the pitchfork to ward her off. The tines split her flimsy shirt and sank into her stomach without resistance.

Allard let go of the handle. He stumbled back, his skin ashen, until his feet hit the bottom of the statues. Lily’s breath was shallow. She blinked up at the clear blue sky. She smiled, sort of; more a twist of her lips–which I saw now had never been too wide or too full or anything other than perfect. Around us, the song grew louder. The tune surged through us, Lily and I, connecting us like a weaver connects strands of thread to make cloth. I moved carefully, adjusting until I held Lily in my lap. The pitchfork leaned ominously and I wrapped my hand around that wicked handle to hold it still.

“Oh, god…oh, god–she wasn’t–” Allard’s voice came out shrill. “You shouldn’t have–“

Quiet,” I said. “Just be quiet.”

Lily took one last, shuddering breath, and grew quite still. I began to shiver, cold seeping from my belly into my heart, into my limbs. Allard had said he might freeze me come winter; his threat had not taken so long to bear fruit. I was ice. Lily’s warmth was my own, and without it I was sure I would die. My brother would bring the village council and find us motionless at the feet of the first song girl. I kept my gaze on Lily’s face; if I was going to die, I wanted her to be the last thing I saw.

Through the rising melody, I heard footsteps; I did not look up. I heard a screaming wrench of metal; I did not look up. I heard a hundred voices join in the song that poured forth from the forest, and still I did not look away from Lily’s clouding eyes. Not until I heard Allard shriek did I tear my eyes from her face, and what I saw forced a gasp of astonishment into my frigid lungs.

All around me the clearing was moving. The girl we’d passed with the smooth head walked by me; her copper arms jerked as she closed in on my brother. All of them, from the oldest rusted statue to the gleaming steel of the current song girl, moved into an ever-smaller circle around him. They did not move as a human might, but twitched their limbs slowly, like ancient gears Still, I saw in them something of the girls they’d once been; a hint of a smile, a turn of the wrist. The smithy had not made these statues at all.

Soon, their skirts and arms and hair enveloped him, and the only thing I had left of my brother was his screams, which I could not enjoy.

I buried my face in Lily’s hair. My chest felt heavy, as if a leaden weight had been placed upon my heart. This was love, I knew, and guilt, in equal measures.

I don’t know how long I stayed there, unmoving. Allard’s cries had ended, at least, and my back was sore from crouching over Lily. When I felt her stir, I was sure I’d lost my mind. My arms contracted around her as I wrenched my head up so that I could see the life twinkling once again through her eyes. I had been betrayed. She was dead. What, then, had happened? My gaze travelled away from Lily, over the clearing. I saw that the statues had resumed their normal positions, except for one difference. Before, they had faced in seemingly random directions, their orientation left up to the whim of their creator. Now, however, they all faced inward, toward Lily and me and the original song girl, who knelt before me.

She moved with the same unnatural trembling I’d seen in the other statues as she pulled the pitchfork from Lily’s abdomen and tossed it aside. Blood pooled in the open wounds. I watched without moving and without protest as the song girl slid one arm beneath Lily’s shoulders and the other into the bend of her knees. Then she stood, taking Lily with her, and walked the few steps back to her home, in the middle of the clearing.

The transformation happened much the same way it had in my dream: Lily’s skin hardened and took on a silvery sheen; her hair froze into tangles of thin wire; the folds of her clothes became rigid and immutable. She was steel, gleaming and perfect but for the stain of rust on her stomach, which I feared no amount of scrubbing could remove. The statue settled into her final position, with Lily in her arms.


That summer, Lily gave us her song.

The flowers that bloomed were streaked with red, but my peas grew sweeter than ever.

Episode 69: Cosmetic Procedures by Desmond Warzel


Cosmetic Procedures

by Desmond Warzel

When I became a private investigator, it wasn’t for excitement, or for money. The work is humdrum, and whatever noir romanticism the profession ever actually had is long gone (though I’ve got a raincoat, a fedora, and a dusty bottle of scotch in the closet, just in case they’re called for). As for money, there isn’t much–and I don’t need it anyway. I’m a dilettante, and utterly unashamed of it.

It was an ego boost, pure and simple. I suppose I just enjoyed the idea that, when some poor desperate soul was in dire straits, stretched to the breaking point, with nowhere to turn, I would be the one he’d call.

Well, now I’m sitting at my desk, unable to take my mind off the lower right-hand drawer, and the unique item therein, and I have no idea who I should call.

I am, however, extremely open to suggestions.


We were just about to give up for the morning and go for lunch; the prospect of a deliciously unhealthy meal had much greater appeal than sitting around the office looking for new and exciting ways to cross-index the files. Then Mr. Harris shambled in and sat down. He wore a really sharp gray suit, but the ends of his tie were the wrong lengths, and he’d missed several swaths of his face the last time he’d shaved. He was an older guy, about my age, and despite his current disarray, he seemed comfortable in his skin. I saw Harris as a kindred spirit; I suspected that he had seen and done a great many more things than his nice clothes indicated.

It was with this impression in mind that I held out that little spark of hope–so quickly extinguished in most cases–that this endeavor would be something more than my having to chase after his wife for a month, taking pictures of her with some other guy. This could be something different.

“It’s about my wife,” said Harris.

Well, win some, lose some. “Go ahead,” I prompted, “how long’s it been going on?”

“What? No, nothing like that. At least I don’t think so.”

“What seems to be the problem, then?”

“She hasn’t been herself lately.”

“How so?”

“She’s bored. I’ll admit that. I’m busy with my work, and there’s nothing to do around the house. Committees, charities, they just weren’t doing it for her. So she went to a party last year hosted by one of her friends…you know, where they sell the cosmetics?” He gave me the name of a well-known company–I’d heard of it, at least–which I’ll keep to myself for now.

“Go on.”

“The next thing I know, the house is full of the stuff, boxes piled up everywhere. Every weekend, she either hosted a party at our place or oversaw someone else’s. It’s not what people expect from the wife of someone like me, and we certainly didn’t need the money. But she was having the time of her life, she’d found something she was good at, and I certainly wasn’t going to stop her. Besides, plenty of well-off people have stranger hobbies than that.

“She started recruiting people, and pretty soon she had her own cadre of saleswomen. She was away from home all the time, but I couldn’t bring myself to complain; I figured that the way I was feeling–lonely and isolated–was no different from how she’d felt during our entire marriage, and she’d never complained once. She was genuinely happy now, so I never said an unkind word about any of it.”

“So what’s the trouble?” I asked.

“About a month ago, they made her a regional director–bumped her up in the hierarchy, so now she has two tiers reporting to her. She hasn’t been the same.”

“How so?”

“She became distant–she barely speaks to me. She has enough clothes to outfit a small army, but now she only wears the company suits they gave her–and I mean 24/7. She’s not home most nights, and never–never–during the day. I know it sounds like she’s cheating on me, but I’ve followed her everywhere I could, and no dice. It’s all makeup parties and company functions, nothing else.”

“What is it you think I can do for you, Mr. Harris?”

“I don’t really know. But something’s wrong. She literally changed overnight. I guess I’m hoping a fresh perspective will help. I have money, whatever you need.”

We shook on it, and I assured Harris that I’d at least look into it. After the door swung closed behind him, my two associates wandered casually in from the next room, where they’d been listening the entire time.

I’m pretty good at this job, but sometimes there are places where a middle-aged white guy is just too conspicuous, and for those occasions I depend on Michelle Riggs (for femininity) and Nate Churchill (for blackness)–both of whom, I hasten to add, are top-notch investigators in their own right. “Got an errand for you, Michelle.”

“Go to one of these parties and see what’s up?”

“That’ll be fun, right?”

“It will be if you budget me some expense money; it’ll look suspicious if I don’t buy anything.”

“Sure, go crazy. Get a variety. We may want to have them analyzed, if all else fails. Nate, would you–“

“Find out everything I can about this cosmetics company? Here, start with this.” Nate pulled a folder from behind his back and tossed it on the desk.

“You’re a wonder, Nate.”

“It’s called Google, Mr. W. I’d teach you to use it yourself if I didn’t think it was the only reason you kept me around.”


“So what do you make of it?” I indicated the array of tiny pastel boxes spread across my desk: lipstick, eyeliner, and other things beyond my ken.

“It’s pretty good,” Michelle replied. “Better than the drugstore stuff and on par with the fancier brands.”

“This isn’t much for five hundred bucks.”

“This is actually two hundred and fifty dollars’ worth. I’ve got the rest at home. Performing some independent analyses.”

“I don’t doubt it,” I said dryly. “But that won’t be the answer anyway. If these products were making people catatonic and nomadic, we’d find out about it. And Nate says no, not a single case. Besides, I imagine it’s quite the opposite–I bet those parties can get pretty rowdy.”

“A bit. So what’s the next move? Observe the wife?”

“Nate’s tailing the wife now. Nothing so far that we don’t already know.”

“Well, it happens that when I was paying for the stuff, I hinted that I might be interested in selling it myself. The saleswoman was more than willing to talk my ear off, and she invited me to the next local function–where she’s going to be promoted to regional director.”

“So?”

“So wasn’t that the last thing that happened to the wife before she went off the deep end?”

Understanding began to dawn for me. “You should go, then.”

We should go–husbands are invited too. You can observe first-hand.”

“Husband? I’ve already played that role. Twice. Panned by the critics both times.”


Arm in arm, Michelle and I strolled into the lobby of the Days Inn whose largest meeting room was to contain this little get-together. My other hand rested in my suit pocket, awaiting the phone vibration that would signal an update from Nate. We hung at the back of the room, trying to remain inconspicuous while watching for anything suspicious. The place was filled practically to overflowing with chattering women and self-conscious husbands. Everyone was friendly, if cursory–I knew no one here, of course, and Michelle’s single acquaintance from the party was nowhere to be seen.

Out of nowhere, the meeting suddenly came to order, and the majority of the people settled into several rows’ worth of folding chairs. Michelle and I camped in the back row, and four of the women took seats behind a wide table at the front of the room. From their identical magenta blouses and black blazers, I took them to be higher-ups in the company. Pinned to each of their lapels was a feathery brooch–probably meant to be floral, but to me they looked like little round sea anemones, stirring in the occasional cross-breeze from the air conditioning.

Oh, how those women did go on. There was company news to disseminate. A bunch of awards to hand out for best recruiter, most product sold, and so on. Then a nervous little guy in a bad rug came in and gave a refresher lecture on the tax implications of home-based businesses. He seemed glad to get out of there–I think being around that many women made him uncomfortable. All through these proceedings, the four at the front remained seated, never participating, only whispering among themselves occasionally.

Finally they got to it. Someone introduced Michelle’s friend from the party; she rose, to enthusiastic applause, and gave a little speech thanking everyone for their support. The four bigwigs at the front got up from their chairs and solemnly shook her hand. One of them produced another anemone brooch from her briefcase and fixed it to the lapel of the newly-minted regional director, who then brought her chair to the front and sat at the head table, a position befitting her new status. She was smiling like she’d just won the Irish Sweepstakes.

I nudged Michelle. “Now keep an eye on her,” I whispered.

“We should both keep an eye on her.”

“Yes, but I’m about to fall asleep.”

“And I’m not?”

“I thought you liked makeup.”

“Makeup, yes,” she hissed. “But if I cared about tax deductions and promotions, I’d have gotten a real job in the first place.”

“Mind your manners, you’re on the clock.”

I had assumed they would end the meeting with the woman’s promotion, but they kept right on going. My natural male defenses blocked out most of the talk, but I dutifully kept some of my attention on our subject. She and the four bigwigs sat tranquilly at their table as each speaker took her turn. Unlike those of us in the audience, whose eyes were naturally drawn to whomever was speaking, those five stared straight ahead at nobody in particular. When an amusing anecdote was shared, the audience dutifully tittered, but the bigwigs’ expressions never changed. And the smile that had adorned the face of Michelle’s friend had faded away without our notice; she now wore the same neutral expression as the other four.

“Hey, Michelle,” I whispered. “Doesn’t she look sort of–“

“Distant? I was just thinking the same thing.”

“Go up and congratulate her afterward. See what she does.”

The meeting droned on, and we didn’t hear a word. We kept staring at the Big Five, none of whom made a move. When we finally–finally!–adjourned, the rank and file milled around and socialized, while the Big Five filed out of the room, briskly and quietly. Michelle and I fought our way through the crowd and out into the hotel’s lobby, but we couldn’t find any trace of them. I sent Michelle out to survey the parking lot while I combed the hallways, but wherever they’d gone, they’d been quick about it. For successful businesswomen, they didn’t spend much time gladhanding.

We regrouped in the lobby. I gasped for breath, lamenting the tribulations of middle age. The rank and file drifted past us and out to their cars. “Something happened to that woman,” I said. “Right there in front of us. I don’t know what, but I think we’re on to something.”

“What do we do?”

“Call Mr. Harris and tell him to meet us at the office. I need to call Nate.”

I fumbled my phone out of my suit pocket and dialed. The intrepid lad answered on the first ring.

“Churchill here.”

“Nate, it’s your boss. Code mauve.”

“Code what?”

“Mauve.”

“Mr. W., I don’t think we have code mauve. We’ve got code red, green, blue, purple. Teal, even. No mauve. In fact, I don’t even know what mauve is.”

“There’s no code purple. What you’ve been calling purple, that’s mauve.”

“Purple? Oh, hell no. You said that one was only theoretical, Mr. W.”

“Gird your loins, my boy, and get back to the office ASAP.”


Michelle sat atop my desk, I behind it. Mr. Harris paced the office. We made small talk to stay awake. It was past midnight, and well into the small hours, when Nate finally strode into the office. His slacks and shirt were torn and several deep scratches adorned his arms.

Code mauve means to retrieve the subject under observation, by force if necessary. It’s frowned upon, legally speaking.

“I got her,” Nate said, “but you guys can get her out of the car yourselves. You didn’t say she was gonna fight like that.”

Harris took Nate by the arm. “Is she okay?”

“Is she okay? Look, Mr. W., I trust you implicitly. You say bring her in, I bring her in. But let me tell you, a brother can’t be bundling a struggling white lady into his car on a regular basis. It’s likely to raise eyebrows.” He tossed me his keys. “Once I cuffed her, she settled down some.” While the three of us hurried out to the car, Nate retrieved the scotch from my closet and took a healthy pull, straight from the bottle.

Mrs. Harris was in the back seat, cuffed to the door. A handsome, classy woman, she wore one of the black company blazers, complete with anemone brooch. I unlocked the cuffs, and Mr. Harris coaxed her out of the car. We three each kept hold of her, and after one abortive escape attempt, she gave in and accompanied us into the office. Nate backed away slowly, scotch in hand, as we brought her in, sat her down, and handcuffed her to the desk. Mr. Harris knelt on the floor beside her and took her hand. She never said a word.

“Where was she, Nate?” asked Michelle.

“At some lady’s house. They were both dressed like that. When I got Mr. W.’s call, I waited until she left and accosted her in the driveway. She fought like a badger. Didn’t make a sound, though.”

“Okay,” I said. “Let’s think. Something turns normal women into…this.”

“Something that was also in that conference room,” mused Michelle. “But what? A hypnotic suggestion? They give them laced bonbons before the meetings?”

“Maybe something in those blazers,” said Nate.

“That makes as much sense as anything,” I said. “Something common to the bigwigs, but not to the rabble at large. In fact, I don’t think the rank and file had a clue anything was wrong.”

“Take the jacket off her, see what happens,” said Nate. “One of you do it, though.”

“Mr. Harris,” I asked, “is she usually dressed this way?”

“I haven’t seen her in anything else all month,” he replied. “She’s got a dozen of them.” He stroked her hand. This was the most time he’d spent with her in days.

“Mrs. Harris,” said Michelle as she cautiously approached the woman, “let me slip your jacket off that arm. Then I’ll uncuff you…” Michelle had barely laid a hand on Mrs. Harris’s sleeve when the women pushed her violently away, propelling her across the office. “Mr. Harris,” she said haughtily, straightening her blouse, “would you mind?”

Harris grimly took hold of his wife’s jacket. “It won’t come. It’s her brooch, I think it’s pinned through to her blouse. Just a second…oh.” Harris backed away. His face had gone pale. I pushed him aside and grabbed at Mrs. Harris’s jacket. She began to thrash. Michelle joined in our struggle, and with her help I got a hand inside the blazer and felt the spot where the brooch joined it to the blouse. Reminding myself to apologize to her husband, I reached inside Mrs. Harris’s blouse…and found that the brooch passed right through it, pinning both blazer and blouse to her skin. Only there didn’t seem to be a pin at all; something else held the whole works together…

Steeling myself, I withdrew from inside Mrs. Harris’s clothing and grabbed hold of the brooch with both hands. And oh, my lord…

It was like holding an angry tarantula in both hands. Those little feathery wisps that I’d thought looked like anemone tentacles began fluttering wildly in my grasp. Revulsion shot through me, but I held on long enough to give one good heave, and the brooch came away from the jacket…and there was more to it than we’d thought.

Protruding from the back of the brooch was a bloody root the width of a pencil. I looked away and pulled harder, feeling more and more of the thing sliding out of Mrs. Harris’s chest with a sickly wet sound. It seemed like fifty feet of the stuff, especially with all of those little tentacles bristling impotently against my palms, but when I finally yanked it free and landed on my backside, there were about twelve inches’ worth of roots trailing from it. As it struggled, it flung drops of the woman’s blood, which spattered on the floor.

The enormous implications of the night’s events were beginning to dawn on me, but for the moment, all I wanted was to find somewhere to stash this thing before it stuck me with that root and turned me into a zombie. Michelle and Harris stared, openmouthed, but Nate was on the job, dashing into the next room and returning with the candy jar from his desk. He emptied it on the floor; M&Ms skittered everywhere. I stuffed the thing inside. Nate furiously screwed the lid back on and stowed the jar in my otherwise-empty lower right-hand desk drawer, slamming it shut.

I collapsed on the floor, shuddering. From somewhere on the other side of the desk came Mrs. Harris’s voice, plaintively addressing her husband. “Sweetie? What’s going on? What is this place?” I heard her rattle the handcuffs.

“Mr. Harris?” I slid the drawer open a little and peeked in. The thing lay in the jar, twitching pathetically. “Do you have someplace to take your wife for a while? A summer home? Or perhaps you might go on a nice long cruise? I think someone may come looking for this.”


And we’re back at the beginning, and I’m stuck with a mind-controlling alien sea anemone in a jar. Sure, I could just set the thing on fire and forget about it, but the other four brooches we saw–along with who knows how many others–imply bigger issues that need addressing.

The cops would laugh at me, the FBI would hang up on me, and my priest would hand me a pamphlet to read while he called the nuthouse.

Homeland Security? NASA? Area 51?

Any suggestions?

Episode 68: Mercurial Skin by Raechel Henderson


Mercurial Skin

by Raechel Henderson

Jodi kneels on the floor taking inventory of musty, used books when she feels someone approach and tower over her.  She doesn’t mind the interruption because the books are starting to whisper to her again. When she looks up she bares her neck to the customer.  “Your Lucy complex is showing again,” Victor, the shop owner and her boss, says from where he’s building new shelves into the ceiling. Jodi pays him as much attention as the books. 

For an instant Jodi and the customer, a boy of sixteen or seventeen, take stock of each other, looking for indicators they might be people who share common interests.

The boy wears standard neo-goth attire–lots of black and dripping in chains–but his costume can’t hide his white-bread good looks.  He’d be better suited to a band or school or fast food uniform. Like her, he is an imposter. She imagines the two of them riding a train through the Carpathians under a full moon.  He mumbles something to her, more of a long sigh than communication.

“Excuse me?” 

He speaks louder but the words still stick together as if he can’t take the time to pronounce each one.

She stands up, brushing her hands on the sides of her jeans.  “Say that one more time, slowly.” She smiles at him to let him know the misunderstanding is all her fault.

“Mercurial Skin,” he says at last.

Her smile fades when she sees the girl behind him, his dark twin although hers isn’t a costume: from her black hair and black lips to the spider web patterned fishnet stockings and scuffed boots she is the Real Thing. The girl watches with a gorgeous smirk and Jodi knows she’s been caught desiring someone else’s property.  When her smile dismisses Jodi as a threat, Jodi becomes all business.

“Do you know where it is?” he asks.  

“What kind of book is it?”

“A novel.”

“Who’s the author?” Jodi asks.  The pair exchange glances and their attitudes change.  He doesn’t seem interested anymore.

“Uh, I dunno . . .”  He glances at his twin, confused looks all around.

“Deezler maybe?” she suggests.  “It starts with a ‘D.’”

“Well then you could try literature,” Jodi says.

“Yeah . . . it’s fiction.”

Jodi pushes past them to show the way.  She swerves around cardboard boxes and stacks of books, steps lightly over the uneven tile and dodges the heating duct that juts out of the wall.  If she closed her eyes she could find her way back to literature by the smell alone: the antique section smells of old leather, the spiritual and occult sections of incense, the histories of gunpowder and musk.  And under it all is the lingering stench of mold as countless overlooked books disintegrate.

She walks briskly around the corner.  Most times she keeps her pace slow for bewildered customers so not to lose them amongst the twisting aisles.  When she looks back and sees they aren’t behind her she lets out an annoyed sigh and doubles back for them.

She searches the bookstore twice before concluding they’ve disappeared.  Her annoyance is eclipsed by her puzzlement. She forgets the inventory as she mulls over the encounter.  At one point, as the afternoon bleeds into early evening, she searches Literature and Books in Print for Mercurial Skin but doesn’t find it.  Victor would probably know the book, but he’s busy dusting in the shelves.  It’s a detailed task: he removes each book and runs a soft dust cloth over the top and spine before returning it and moving to the next book.  Sometimes she thinks he whispers back to the books. 

Only at the end of the day, as she closes the store does it occur to her it might have been a test.  “Mercurial Skin.” A password? What would have happened if she’d recognized the words? What exclusive circle would she have been invited into?

She frowns at her reflection in the display window.  Brown hair and a chubby face frown back at her. She’d look ridiculous in goth attire; even so, she considers dying her hair black. 


Jodi believes everyone has to become something.  Most people just turn into older versions of themselves, but others run into the weird and wonderful who recognize a kindred spirit.  Those lucky souls are initiated, nurtured, cocooned, and burst free, a different entity all together. Vampires, werewolves, witches, charismatics, they’re all the same at the start.  They find where they fit in and it changes them into someone more interesting, exotic, better.

Jodi spends her days trying to figure out the riddle of Mercurial Skin.

She makes lists of possible responses: Fickle Heart, Deceitful Tongue, Mother Tongue?

She tries anagrams: Numerical risk, Reclaim Ski Urn, Miracle In Rusk.

She lingers in the puzzles section, reading through books on code breaking, not listening to their whisperings.  Victor told her on her first day to ignore them. “They’re like beggars. Once they got your attention they won’t shut up for nothing.  I’ve lost more’n one employee to the books.” She takes it to mean they’ve quit rather than listen to the constant mutterings.

Without admitting to it, Jodi keeps looking for the neo-goth boy.  Her imagination is dominated by scenes of the two of them together.  She imagines they are spies hunting down trained assassins in Bangkok.  It doesn’t matter that she’s never travelled; doesn’t even have a passport.  At first she glances up whenever the door chimes. Soon she turns corners, moves through the stacks, or checks the reading nooks expecting to see him.  Even outside the bookstore, on the street, while glancing out her window, or at the grocery store, she anticipates his sudden materialization. The certainty she has of seeing him any moment short-circuits her internal clock.  She lives five seconds in the future and moves more slowly to compensate; to give him time to find her. The constant accompanying disappointment weakens her defenses.

The paperback romances twitter at her when she flips through them, pretending to straighten the shelves.  The poetry folios recite love sonnets when she passes. The self-help books guarantee she only needs to lose weight, learn how to apply make-up, or believe in herself to get her man.  Those books she leaves to Victor’s care.

She watches customers wander through the aisles, running their fingers over the books.  After a year of working the store she can tell those who can hear the books from those who can’t.  Those who can browse with their heads tilted slightly. They fondle the books and take their time in choosing.  Those who can’t snatch books up, skim the first few pages, and make their decisions in seconds. She’s heeded Victor’s advice so far, just the fact that she can hear the books tells Jodi she’s in the right place to find what she’s looking for.  Jodi scratches her neck and the sound is like the rustling of pages.


Jodi thinks about getting a tattoo.  Something small, maybe on her hip or some place else she could cover up.  But that would mean having to disrobe for a stranger and she’s afraid of the needle’s sting.


She can’t fit her usual fantasies to neo-goth boy anymore.  Her mind refuses to focus on dreams of adventure and discovery.  Instead she’s subconsciously set up house with him: Sunday brunches, sharing yard work, snuggling before the television on work nights.  She tries to tell herself it’s all so pathetically banal, but she can’t exorcise the thoughts from her head, nor can she bend them to a more suitable vision.  Sure she could have that if that’s what she wanted: some ordinary life with an ordinary guy. But she’d always be dissatisfied, always looking for something more fulfilling.

Afraid she’ll have lost her one and only chance, Jodi turns to the books.

“Mercurial Skin,” she whispers to the tatty and broken spines.

“Mercurial Skin,” they sigh back to her, sounding almost like the neo-goth boy.  Jodi looks around but she’s alone.

“What is it?” she asks the books.

The books whisper to her about dashed hopes and painfully drawn out terminal illnesses, the lives of the Indians of the Amazon interior, folk songs of the lower Slavic peoples, the heresies prevalent in 17th century Germany, of a hundred other tangled and convoluted subjects.  At first, she thinks they’re trying to help her and she strains to understand what they say.

After a day or two she wonders if they aren’t just a mirror of her own inner turmoil.  The main emotional content of their messages are of longing and disappointment.  

This isn’t a conversation, she realizes at last.  This is a monologue issued by hundreds of actors, each trying to be heard over the others.  This is why she ignored the books in the first place, Jodi remembers. Now it’s too late. She opened her ears to them and there’s no stoppering them up.


Even when she’s alone in her apartment she can hear the mediocre, prosaic, characterless stories.  It’s an indictment of her own life that she only hears the boring plots. Or maybe it’s a portent of her own future: the books are telling her she’s destined for a wearisome, humdrum experience.  She finds her own fantasies weighted down by ponderous verbiage and melodrama. She goes out Saturday night to escape her stilted thoughts.

She stands against the back wall of the club, nursing a vodka tonic as the factions move around each other in an unchoreagraphed minuet.  She watches the vampires, too unsure of herself to consider approaching them. The waifs sway, arms stretched above their heads, under the pulsing neon lights.  The Baron is trolling the crowds for a playmate, a length of gleaming white nylon rope looped over his shoulder. He’s never once looked at her. She rubs her wrist where the skin has became tough, leathery.

Jodi considers joining the vamps.  She watches them lounging in one of the alcoves.  They wear black leather corsets and velvet fishtail skirts.  Some of them can be called voluptuous. Some are just fat, their breast spilling over their corsets in pale, flabby mounds.  Even so, they’re surrounded every Saturday night by admirers. Men and women buy the vamps drinks, whisper in their ears and sneak off with one or another to dark corners.  Jodi thinks she’d look good as a vamp with the neo-goth leaning against her. But she can’t afford even a cheap corset, and the weird and wonderful have a strict dress policy.

The ice has melted and diluted her drink.  Jodi looks down at her body, expecting to see she has gone invisible.  But no, as she casts her gaze down she sees her pigeon chest, thrift-shop dress, dimpled knees and low-heeled shoes.  Her clothing and personality are so bland she blends into her surroundings. She slinks home with the sort of fatal wounds only self-recrimination can inflict.


Jodi’s closed up shop but she hasn’t left.  She sits, huddled against the books, weeping.  She doesn’t want to go out on the street where neo-goth won’t/always will be.  She’s tried everything she can think of but nothing’s brought her closer to the answer.  Maybe she’s not meant to be anybody else. Maybe this is all she’s meant for.

No.  She rejects that thought.  Why would she have gotten this job if this isn’t where she’s going to find where she belongs?  It can’t be only because Victor needed someone to work the evening shift. She’ll never admit to having taken the job because she needed money, and it seemed like easy work.  

The books’ whisperings are comforting tonight.  She leans closer, rubs her wet cheeks against cloth and paper bindings.  She strokes their spines and feels their pleasure at her touch.

Being a book wouldn’t be so bad.  Here among the forgotten and unwanted she wouldn’t be judged, even by her cover.  

The books make her an offer: she could join them.  What does she have to lose? Her lonely life? Her emptiness?  At least on the shelves she would have companions, others who know what it’s like to be over looked.  And there is the promise of being picked up one day, taken home, read and enjoyed.

Jodi thinks about the books in the back, the ones riddled with bugs, damp pages fused together, now unreadable.  How long do obscure books pine for a reader before they go mad, or give up and fall silent forever? She walks back to the furthest corner and runs her fingers down the spongy spines, listening for a response.  Maybe their voices are too faint, or maybe they refuse to speak to her.  

A panicky flutter beats against her ribcage.  What is she thinking? There’s always tomorrow.  She could try a new club, walk a new route home, she could look for a new job.  Away from the moldy books, where there are people, where there is life.  

The books pull at her, they whisper soothing words, they are warm under her hands and against her cheek.  It’s so comfortable here. You’ll have us, they tell her.

All she has to do is abandon her hope of finding anything else, of belonging anywhere else.  There’s no romance in giving up, Jodi knows this. But romance can’t stand against the empty ache in her chest.

“Yes.”  Her answer comes out as a whisper.  Already her body is dissolving. It reforms and she is aware of her new shape, knows how many pages her life takes up, where her covering is frayed, the nature of her odor–dry, as if twenty-two-years’ worth of dust are pressed into her paper.  Her pulpy heart leaps when she recognizes her title.


Jodi is lifted from the shelf.  She recognizes his hands even though she’s never felt them: soft, gentle but firm.  The neo-goth boy traces her slightly embossed title. Another snatches her from him: quick fingers with black-lacquered nails manicured into cruel points.  

“What’s this?”  The girlfriend reads Jodi’s back jacket copy.  “Girl in a bookstore? Jesus, John, do you really want to read this crap?”  She’s tossed back onto the shelf. “I’m going to see if they have any Dead Girls.”

John, picks her back up, his fingertips are moth wings on her dust jacket.  They are moonbeams, soft rain, warm and intimate. He tucks her under his arm and goes in search of the register.

That night he reads her life.  He reads every word of her story, rereads some passages two, three times even.  He empathizes with her life and loneliness. The veneer of fiction allows her to finally speak to him and for him to hear her.  For the first time Jodi feels understood, accepted, loved. And she reads him. She sees his own desire to belong, his discomfort with the costume but his unwillingness to give it up . . . yet.  When he’s finished, as amber dawn drives away the darkness, both are exhausted. He gives a satisfied sigh before closing her. As he sleeps, Jodi nestled next to him, she whispers to him. She’ll get him back to the bookstore and show him the way.  Already she’s dreaming of the two of them on the shelf, side-by-side, moldering away. Together. 

Episode 67: Barsoom in June by Brian Hurrel


Barsoom in June

by Brian L. Hurrel

Come in, Mr. Unger. Now, what’s all this fuss about? You’ve created quite a stir within the Astronomy Department.

I’m sorry sir. It was unintentional. I was setting up a spectroscopy demonstration for my Astronomy 101 class. I used the Talbot ECR 394 with —-.

Long story short, Mr. Unger.

Well sir, I did a test analysis of Mars, and, well, it showed oxygen. Lots of oxygen.

Obviously there was something wrong with the machine or its calibration.

That’s what I thought too. So I tried a second spectroscope. The Marchand 227—

The Marchand always was a little quirky.

Yes sir, so I ran the same tests on the Dorushuk equipment and—

And?

The results were the same.

Then it was a calibration problem. You were picking up data from Earth’s own atmosphere.

I thought of that, sir, so I requested some imaging time on the ESA’s orbiting IR Spectrometer—

Which is how this was brought to my attention.

Yes, sir. In the meantime, just for the hell of it, I did the same analysis on Venus.

Did you now? I trust you found plenty of CO2?

Yes, but also oxygen in almost the same amounts. But what was really crazy was the data I received from a thermal imaging scan. The temperatures were nowhere near what they should have been. In fact, they were practically—-

Hold it right there, Mr. Unger. And I do mean hold it right there.

Um… is that a hair dryer?

This? Well, I suppose it would dry hair. For about a nanosecond before disintegrating it and the head it is attached to into their component atoms.

I don’t like practical jokes, sir, and this particular joke is in pretty poor taste.

On the contrary, Mr. Unger, were this a practical joke, it would be a most excellent one indeed. Unfortunately, this is no joke. Ah-ah-ah, do stand still please.

Or you’ll disintegrate me?

Depending on the setting, this device can indeed disintegrate you, but it can also stun you, shrink you, or selectively erase memories.

Riiiiiight…

What if I told you that I was not actually from Hoboken, New Jersey, but instead from a small town at the foot of Olympus Mons?

Okaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay…

I can see that you need further convincing. You are familiar with Miss Kellerman from the Biology Department?

Heh. Of course. Who isn’t.

Of course. Well, what if I told you that Miss Kellerman was actually a native of the planet Venus?

Uh huh. Beautiful woman from Venus. Makes perfect sense.

Miss Kellerman, would you come in here for a moment please?

Sure. Men are from Mars, women are from—–GAHHH! What’s with the Sleestak costume!?

Actually, Miss Kellerman is out of costume. And I assure you any resemblance to the denizens of The Lost Land—

Land of the Lost.

Yes. Any resemblance to those creatures is purely superficial. Szzzzzzzaki, or Miss Kellerman, is far more quick and agile. Were she to face one of your storied velociraptors unarmed, it would be a toss-up as to the winner. Szzzzzzzaki, you are acquainted with Mr. Unger in Astronomy?

Um… hello Janice… er .. Saki… that’s a lovely neck frill.

Ssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss!

Is that a friendly hiss or an ‘I’m going to eat you’ hiss?

Miss Kellerman needs her vocorder to mimic human speech. The simplest literal translation would be, ‘You smell like a swamp lurker’s leavings.’ High praise in her culture, I might add.

Well, she certainly looks the part. But you look human as far as I can tell.

Ah, yes. One minute while I — damn —- Szzzzzzzaki, would you be a dear and help me with this zipper? Thank you. Ahhhhh. Much better.

You’ve got to be kidding me.

Beg pardon?

Green? Martians are green?

More of an olive, actually.

And an extra pair of arms… of course. Why not?

They do make multitasking a breeze. Now, what we need to decide now is what to do with you Mr. Unger. But first I want you to listen carefully.

Everything you know about Mars and Venus, their compositions and atmospheres, their surface temperatures, their geography, all of it is a carefully constructed fiction.

That’s impossible. How can you hide something like that?

Venus is a young world, very much like Earth millions of years ago during the age of the dinosaurs. And, in fact, they do have dinosaurs, or creatures so near to those who once roamed Earth as to make any differences academic.

Mars, in contrast, is an old world, and possessed of an old culture. We have canals, towering spires, and great sailing ships which criss-cross not blue oceans of water but red seas of sand.

We’ve been studying Mars and Venus for centuries, and in the last few decades have sent probes to their surfaces. Not one found any trace of life, much less civilization. How do you explain away a hundred years of solid scientific data?

Explain it? It’s simple, Mr. Unger. I and my colleagues, along with trusted friends of your own race, are responsible for almost all of that data. We lived in perfect isolation until one of your astronomers, Percival Lowell, discerned the Martian canal system at the turn of the last century. He even mapped them fairly accurately.

But it was determined that they were optical illusions.

And who do you think made that determination? Who do you think put the kibosh on manned space exploration? Who do you think are the most vocal opponents of NASA and SETI? We had a near disaster when photos of some of our monuments, notably the Pyramid of Dejah and the Visage of Tarkas, got past us and into circulation, but we managed to cover that up eventually.

But I just don’t see how you could create a deception on that scale. Anyone could get a spectrometer.

But how many people could use it properly or interpret the data? You took it on faith that Venus is a boiling, lifeless greenhouse and that Mars was a long dead world. Did you come to this determination on your own, recent events notwithstanding? Of course not. Did you travel to these worlds just to see for yourself? Obviously not. How many average people would even question this information? They can’t actually verify it themselves, and even you took the word of others and information from books to be irrefutable truth.

Surely you can’t control every single astronomer on the planet?

The skills to actually study a planet in detail are rare, access to the necessary equipment even rarer, and we control most of that. As for the occasional individual like yourself who stumbles upon an inconvenient fact here or there, well, they are quickly silenced?

Silenced. I’ll bet.

Oh, don’t be so dramatic. They have a few selective memories erased, which is probably doing them a professional favor and prevents them from becoming laughing-stocks.

And if somehow I did tell the world?

That will not happen, I assure you. No one would believe you, for one thing. However, we certainly can’t have someone who knows about us running around.

So you’re going to erase my memories?

Perhaps. Or we may—

Disintegrate me?

Probably not. I would only do so in self-defence, though I doubt Szzzzzzzaki would give you more than a quarter second to make a move.

Are you afraid I’ll interfere with your plans to take over the Earth? Because you’d be right. How many of you are there? How long has this been going on?

Ssss-ssss-ssss-ssss-ssss-ssss-ssss!

What was that?

That was the sound of a Venusian laughing.

You won’t be laughing when we rise up and send you packing back to your own planet with your tails between your legs.

Relax, Mr. Unger. We have no intention of invading Earth or taking over or forcing you to work in the mines of Titan.

Then what do you want?

Merely to be left alone, Mr. Unger. Many of us, myself included, like Earthlings. Especially your sitcoms. But we like Earthlings right where they are here on Earth. If Earth knew there were two more habitable planets in this system, how long do you think it would be before the explorers landed? Then the colonists. Then the businessmen, the miners and industrialists. And worse still…tourists. How long before Mars and Venus are merely occupied territory, third world…well, worlds, destined to be mere client states and watch their own culture disappear.

You don’t know that.

We’d rather not take chances. Venus is young and vigorous, and certainly needs no interference in its growth. Mars, on the other hand, is in its twilight, our Golden Age having passed about the same time you were inventing the wheel. You might even say we’re a fading race, but we’d like to live out our old age in quiet dignity, thank you very much.

Martian canals. Sand ships. Swamps. Dinosaurs. Venusian lizard men.

Ssssssssssssssssssss.

And women, of course. It’s a lot to take in.

You probably won’t have to worry about it much longer.

Ah, hell, you might as well zap me with your memory eraser then.

Of course, there is an alternative.

Besides disintegration?

Besides disintegration. I find the fact that you haven’t passed out or run off screaming and flapping your arms promising. Perhaps a change of scenery would do you some good.

You want to transfer me? Great. Shuffle me off to an adjunct position at Podunk U where I’ll be all but out of the academic community, I bet.

I was thinking more along the lines of Cydonia Technical Institute.

Where’s that, in West Virg—wait a second, Cydonia? On Mars?

There’s also a substantial number of…expatriates… so you’d hardly be the only Earthling.

That would be incredible! But what about Venus?

Being that you are not a trained Navy SEAL, your life expectancy on Venus would be, oh, about five minutes.

And if I was a Navy SEAL?

Ssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss.

Meaning?

Seven minutes. I’m afraid Venus is out of the question. Far too humid there anyway. As it is, you’re in luck. There’s a transport leaving in three days. You can be on Mars in seven. I actually envy you, Mr. Unger. I haven’t been home in years.

And if I don’t want a transfer?

You go back to class with a slight headache and no memory of this meeting or your spectroscope readings, and you will have a sudden interest in studying distant stars rather than the boring and lifeless worlds in our own solar system.

Your next class is in, let’s see, a little under five minutes. I’ll give you four to make your decision.

Episode 66: The Egg Game by S. R. Algernon


The Egg Game

by S. R. Algernon

I never would have invented the egg game if our parents had taken us–that is, me and my little brother Donnie–on a real vacation. Don’t tell them that, though. Donnie and I will never live it down if we admit, even for a second, that our parents are capable of doing anything cool, even by accident.

It all started last summer, about a week after school let out. Our parents cast suspicious eyes over our glowing report cards and, with a sigh or two, agreed to take us on a trip to space. We were thinking of Lunar World or the Balloon Cities of Venus, but a week before launch day we found out that, no, we were going to the Sun Spot. The Sun Spot turned out to be a “floatel” resort just far enough out of the atmosphere so that our parents technically kept their promise. It spun like a giant bicycle wheel for gravity. Its elevators ran along the spokes, so that someone could get a workout at the gym on the one-point-five gee level, ride inward–or “up”–to the normal level for lunch and then continue on one of those floating zero-gee tai chi groups. It had all the stuff adults liked to do, but as far as Donnie and I were concerned, it might as well have been a bus station.

“Look at those kids over there,” I said to Donnie, as we bounded along one of the station’s low-gee corridors on the way back from the Space Junk Museum. “They’ve got Lunar World wristbands. They must be passing through on their way back.”

“Don’t you just want to throw something at them?” asked Donnie. He tossed a bag of peanuts to himself, sending it upward at just the right angle to compensate for the station’s movement, so that it traced a gently curved path back to his hand. Seeing Donnie juggle gave me an idea.

Once we got into the elevator, just behind the Lunar World kids, I looked up at the emergency hatch. I imagined something suitably icky stuck up there stuck up there just well enough that the gentle deceleration of stopping at a floor wouldn’t dislodge it, but by the time the elevator got to Earth gravity… just imagine the look on those rich kids’ faces.

“Let’s go back to the store,” I said. “I’m going to buy a carton of eggs and a pack of chewing gum.”

Once I had explained the idea, Donnie came up with the scoring system. One of us would go up to the zero-gee level, stick the egg to the emergency hatch and leave a disposable camera wedged against the handrail. The other one would wait at the one-gee level and pick up the camera when nobody was looking. Whoever placed the egg would get one point for every floor the egg managed to visit before meeting its demise. He’d get a hundred points if the egg hit someone directly, as opposed to merely splattering their shoes, and a thousand points if that person were famous enough that our prank made it onto the mainstream news sites.

Donnie scored five points in the first try. The only person in the car was a guy in a suit who stood all the way in the back of the car, so wrapped up in the video streaming past his corneas that he wouldn’t have noticed an alien invasion. He stepped over the remains of the egg on his way out. The cleanup bot rolled out from its compartment and took care of the mess a few minutes later.

“I can beat that,” I said, but I knew I’d have to hurry. Security would wonder where the egg came from, and eventually they’d get around to reviewing the surveillance video. I took the next car up to the zero-gee level and placed the egg. I choose a spot a centimeter off-center to compensate for the curved trajectory, the way bowlers intentionally aim off to the side when they hook the ball. This is a real sport, I thought, and I’m going to put some brainpower into it. I felt like an Olympic gymnast sticking a landing as I stashed the camera, pushed off from the wall and floated into an empty corridor.

Nobody there. Drat.

In a flash of insight, I hit the DOWN button. The elevator AI knew people sometimes took a while to bounce into the elevator, so it kept the doors open for a minute. With that much time, I’d have a chance to pick up a passenger or two.

A few seconds later, I heard a commotion. Four security guards floated in from around the corner on circular platforms. Gas hissed from the platform’s navigation vents as they rounded the corner. I thought the game was up until my initial panic faded and I got a good look. The guards floated in a diamond formation; in the center of the diamond, gliding deftly through the corridor, was a pale, balding man wearing a black suit and a glittering star-field tie. I knew immediately that he was Zed Nolan, spokesperson for the Colonial Advocates’ Alliance. Cameras hovered over the head of the lead guard, angling for the best shot of Nolan’s smug grin. They didn’t have to tilt their lenses too far down. Nolan was over two meters tall. His height proved to the world that he was not built for the stifling grip of Earth’s gravity.

A throng of reporters, hecklers and well-wishers trailed along after him. They didn’t handle zero-gee quite so deftly, so they piled up in the corner as they pushed off the wall, giving the security guards a chance to pull away from the crowd.

“Everyone back away,” said the leader of the security detail. “That’s the rules, folks. Nobody in the elevator but him.”

I floated past them like it was the most natural thing in the world, and I waited until I blended in with the crowd before cupping my hand over my earpiece and calling Donnie.

“You’ll never guess who just got into that elevator,” I said, not waiting for an answer. “It’s Zed Nolan. The one on the talk shows. The one who always makes Dad yell at the screen. If the egg lands on him, it’s a thousand points for sure.”

“He’s, like, eight feet tall,” said Donnie. “He’ll break the egg before it has a chance to fall. Then you won’t get any points.”

“You never said anything about the egg falling,” I said, remembering his rules to the letter. “All it has to do is hit him.”

“No fair,” said Donnie, without conviction.

I turned back toward Nolan to catch a good glimpse of him before the door closed. He had about ten centimeters of clearance between the egg and his head, and he stood directly beneath it, close enough that I swear I could see its shell reflected on his sweaty skin. In that moment, I felt like I could match his smug grin tooth for tooth. Victory was mine.

After that, I waited. One minute passed, then two, then five. I convinced myself that Donnie didn’t want to look, and that he’d hide behind plausible deniability. It didn’t matter. Zed Nolan with literal egg on his face would be every Earthside journalist’s dream. That thousand points would be mine for sure.

My phone chimed after seven minutes.

“What did you do?” said Donnie. For a while, that was all I could get out of him. In the background, I heard yelling, footsteps and the tips of Donnie’s shoelaces against the ground. They were always too long, and Mom said they were a safety hazard. They were the least of our problems now.

“What do you mean?” I asked. “I’ve been waiting for you to call.”

“I mean what did you do to that egg? There’s blood everywhere. Zed Nolan is dead.”

“He can’t be. It’s just an egg.”

“I don’t see any egg, just blood. We’re going to be in so much trouble. What are we going to do?”

“It’ll be all right, Donnie,” I said, surprised at how quickly I stepped into big-brother mode. “Just find the nearest security guard and tell him the truth. You were waiting for the elevator. The door opened, and you saw what you saw. Can you do that?”

“I think so.”

“No wait. Before you say anything, look in the elevator. Do you see my camera?”

“No. It’s gone.”

“All right. Go. Tell Mom and Dad what happened. I have to think.”

I remembered how it started, with Nolan alone in the elevator, and tried to imagine how the scene played out. Someone else must have gotten on at a lower floor, maybe at a low-gee maintenance level. The assassin killed him and knelt over the body to make sure he was dead. Next, the assassin had to escape before the doors opened again, so he reached up and hit the emergency stop button. The elevator slammed to a stop… giving the egg enough relative downward acceleration to overcome the chewing gum. There was no egg on the floor because it all wound up on the back of the assassin’s jacket.

But where could he have gone? I looked around the elevator lobby until I found a door with an EMERGENCY USE ONLY–ALARM WILL SOUND sign. I pushed on the door, and it resisted for ten seconds before giving in. On any other day, that ten seconds would have given security enough time to see what I was up to, but they had other things on their minds.

I stepped onto an open shaft, which should have scared me except that I had been floating around for most of the afternoon. I drifted downward, caught hold of one of the C-shaped rungs in the wall and climbed back up to the doorway. The assassin was down there, I thought, on his way to whatever escape route he had planned. All I had to stop him with was a backpack and a nearly full carton of eggs.

At first my instinct was to hold the egg out as far as I could to the middle of the shaft and let it go, like dropping a pebble into a well. Then I remembered where I was, and that fake gravity didn’t work like the real thing. I noticed that the ladder was on the retrograde side of the shaft–that is, the side that was forever catching up with the rest of the shaft as the station spun. If people fell off the ladder, they would follow the straight-line path of their own momentum and the ladder would catch up to them. That was a nice safety feature, I thought. It kept anyone from drifting too far from the ladder. It also gave me an idea. There was just enough space between the rung and the wall for the egg to pass between them. Or, to put it another way, there was space for the egg or a set of knuckles, but not both.

I held the egg inside a C-shaped rung of the ladder, so that the succession of rungs formed a tunnel, and then I let it roll instead of drop. The nudge from the wall kept it in place as it disappeared into the darkness. A minute later, I heard a soft crunch and a word that would have gotten me grounded for a week if I’d said it within earshot of my parents.

I spun around then, just about to climb back into the elevator lobby, when I saw a gun pointed at my head. Luckily, the arm holding that gun belonged to a pissed-off security guard.

“Are you trying to get yourself killed, kid?” said the guard, as he holstered his pistol.

“He’s getting away,” I said. “Whoever was in that elevator is climbing down to another level. You have to stop him before he can get off the station.”

“I’ve found the breach,” said the guard. “False alarm. Some kid fooling around. I’ll lock up the emergency hatch and meet you back at the crime scene.”

“I’m trying to tell you…”

I went through the whole story on the way back to the one-gee level. I spent the next four hours in an interrogation room the security office. The guards were more interested in getting me to shut up than asking me any questions, but I knew the real interrogation would start as soon as my parents got hold of me. Donnie, meanwhile, had cooked up a story about losing his camera while watching the ships dock and getting lost when he ran back to retrieve it. He’d said, no doubt with wide eyes and a bit of a sniffle, that he was only taking the elevator to the information booth, to let his dear parents know where he was. Naturally, the recurring theme from our parents for the next few days was why I couldn’t be good like my brother.

I had the last laugh, though. The assassin showed up at a greasy-spoon diner on the one-gee ring and sat there drinking a coffee like he was waiting for someone. The waitress was used to seeing customers with flecks of egg in their moustaches after they finished eating but it’s not very often they have egg stains on their cuffs before they sit down, to say nothing of dried whites in their hair behind the ear. By that point, the murder was on the news, and every news channel flashed one of those “report anything suspicious” signs. The waitress thought it was suspicious, so she phoned it in. The next day someone fished his blood-spattered and egg-soaked jacket out of a garbage bin by the elevator, and from then on the puns rolled in. “Yolk and Dagger” said one blog. “Jack the Dripper,” cried another. An American ventured “Eggs Benedict Arnold.”

Whatever they called him, his face was on computer screens across the solar system, and that won me a cool thousand points. Donnie keeps talking about a re-match, but he’s out of luck. Dad says we won’t be going off-planet again for a long, long time.

Episode 65: The Great Game, Part 7 – The Mustard Wyrm by James Vachowski

Show Notes

The Mustard Wyrm is final installment of a series of stories called The Great Game by James Vachowski and narrated by Barry J Northern. To find other episodes in the series search for the tag The Great Game.


The Great Game, Part 7–The Mustard Wyrm

By James Vachowski

What is that infernal screeching?  In God’s Holy Name, child, leave that poor cat alone!

Eh?  Music?  So you say.  To these ears it sounded more like a banshee being skinned alive.  Do yourself a favor and quit now, while you still have your youth. Your talents clearly lie beyond the world of music, and I dare say you will need all available time to discover your true skill.  By virtue of your heinous display of what I can only assume was intended to be a strain from Schubert, it is safe for us to rule out the violin as your life’s calling.  

Besides, any devotee knows there is but a single instrument worthy of mastery.  Which one, you say? Do you jest? Surely your music professor has taught you the wonder of the bagpipes?  No? Child, the pipes are the birthright of the Highlanders, the instrument of ancient Scottish kings! Here now, be a good lad and wrap that quilt round my knees.  Close the window as well. The night grows cold, and I fear we have tormented the neighbors enough for one evening, what with your attempts at harmony.

How old are you again, child?  No, forget I asked. Even if you were my age, the tale I am about to tell would still be too much for your precocious ears.   It happened in Ypres, that cursed town in a cursed country. Our men stood shoulder to shoulder with our boys, some very near to your age I should say, lined up to charge at the endless waves of men and boys on the opposite side.  Despite all I had seen and done thus far, it was early in the War and the fighting was still furious. The job of messenger was usually left to the youngest boys, but as every set of legs was needed, my fleet feet were conscripted for running to and fro between the lines.  I dashed back and forth with each shifting of the barbed wire strands, ensuring the field marshals could accurately sight their deadly artillery fire. The booming shells continued to fall as the longest day poured into night, and I wager that I killed more men using my feet than I ever had with my hands.

The stars disappeared from the sky, drowned out by the powerful artillerymens’ flares.  Kitchener’s Wood itself was a casualty, the trees snapped in half from the day’s constant bombardment.  The impact of the shells shook the Earth into a steady low rumbling and rocking, not unlike a ship at sea.  Minute by minute, yard by precious yard, our fire rained down upon the Germans and forced them to cover. Our advance was costly but steady, and for the briefest of moments I thought that we might have won.

The stench of corpses filled the air for a few brief seconds, till a gust of wind beat forth from the east.  It was a hot, steamy air, but I shuddered as I felt it on my skin. The jets of current pulsed toward us in rapid surges, as if powered by the very bellows that stoked the fires of Hell.  Behind me, one of the boys in our company shrieked in terror. He held his pink finger skyward, pointing toward a looming shadow flying low in the sky. In spite of myself, I felt my legs freeze thick to the ground.  Of course I had seen dragons before, my child, but never one as fierce as this!

The black beast was closing the ground quickly, spurred forward with each flap of his leathery wings.  His neck twisted up to inhale great gulps of air, then rolled back down toward the earth to spew forth a thick yellow cloud.  The sky around the creature became tinted with haze as the cloud sank down towards our men. It brought with it a sour, acrid taste that burned on my skin.  Some of our number were already bent over at the waist, retching and gagging like dogs with the sickness.

As the dragon circled overhead, filling its demonic lungs with more fresh air for another pass, the bravest of His Majesty’s troops struggled to form a skirmishing line for our defense.  What a sight it was, child! The Moors from Algeria stood shoulder to shoulder with the Gurkhas and the Sikhs. Enfield rifles were brought to bear, held at eye level among the line of fezzes and turbans.  Their sharp cracks echoed out on either side, but it was no use. Even the sharp steel bullets just bounced off the beast’s hide.

For all of the times I had cheated death, my child, I couldn’t for the life of me see a way out.  The battle seemed as futile as the War itself, and all of our victories were about to be for naught.  The rest of our troops scattered to the trenches for cover, wrenching off their doughboy helmets to don canister masks in the hope of some scant protection.  The beast blew down a second cloud of the mustard-colored gas, which swirled around us in thick plumes. Men of the fittest health were crippled in seconds, their bodies collapsing down into convulsing piles of broken flesh.  Death comes to us all, I had reached that conclusion long before, but no man deserves to die like those wretches did. Dozens went down, then hundreds. Before long it was thousands.

I had tried to hold my own breath, but reached my physical limits after just ten minutes.  My lungs nearly collapsed at that first inhalation of gas, and my head spun as I fell to the ground.  Though dizzy, I could still see that great black dragon circling overhead, preparing to make one last pass over the battlefield.  His Majesty’s troops were falling beside me in all directions, fighting a futile battle for fresh air. A lone Scotsman collapsed to my right, with a look of despair cross his fair face.  Our eyes met, and we shared the same thought—that as quickly as this battle was sure to be over, the War would end just so.

With an air of resignation, the Scot pulled himself to his knees, dusted off his tartan kilt, and reached for his pipes.  Breathing more of that foul air surely doomed him, but he did it still, as he pulled his pipes to his lips. With a final breath, he blew the first note of a Highland tune, no doubt intended as a funereal goodbye to his comrades.  The slow, droning buzz carried out across the forest. From the corner of my eye, I spied several other mops of red hair raising themselves up from the ground, heads lifted aloft by the sound of their homeland.

And then, from above me, I saw it!  The fierce dragon was beating his ferocious wings even harder, an act which sent him spiraling up in angry circles.  It was clearly an attempt to distance his evil ears from the glorious sound of the pipes, and I stirred myself to nudge the Scot and draw his attention.  The lad received my message, sucked in another deep breath, and redoubled his efforts. The sweet melodies of Edinborough carried out over the battlefield, sending the dragon even higher in the sky.  The putrid yellow gas lifted momentarily, which allowed our men to find their legs and scatter. Several other companies bade their pipers to join in the tune, and before long the earth was shaking not from the pounding of artillery, but from the buzz of bagpipes.

Lifting my head to the night sky, I caught sight of the dragon.  Above the clouds, writhing in the light of the moon, the beast was clearly tormented by the symphony of such beauty.  Unable to escape it, he wrapped his wings around his head to muffle the sound. But those bony wings could not drown out the noise completely, and a shout of joy went up as the men saw the dragon stop circling.  Indeed, with his wings occupied in such a defensive manner, the creature could not fly at all!  

A rush of joy rose in my heart as I saw the wrym start to plummet from the sky, but the feeling turned to dread when I observed him directly above me!  I tried to run, but it was no use! In less than a second the creature had collapsed to the ground, the impact sending shock waves across the whole of Europe.  My legs went numb beneath the weight of its tail, twitching and shaking with rage, and my body turned cold as the beast’s head twisted around to face me. Its horrible white fangs gnashed out, and I steeled myself to receive a final blast of the deadly mustard gas.

But our troops had regrouped, and before the dragon could exhale again, it was swarmed from all sides by a squad of brave Gurkhas. Their curved blades found the mark over and over again, until finally the beast lay unnaturally still.  I felt hands pulling me by the shoulders, out from under the carcass and a safe distance away. It may have been an hour before we were sure it was truly deceased, but when we were, a cry of victory rang up over the battlefield.

It was my last battle, child, for a soldier without legs is by necessity an ex-soldier.  For me, the War was over. I gave my final order from a hospital litter, directing the Gurkhas to behead the fierce creature.  Some days later I would present the dragon’s head, horns and fangs and all, to His Majesty King George in exchange for the Victoria Cross. A fair trade, I would say.  The War continued on without me, as wars before and since have done, and now precious few seem to notice the battles a pensioner fights.

Ah, but the tales of my life have been long and hard in the making, and I tire of telling them.  Bring the blanket, child, and draw the curtains. The night is growing cold.

Episode 64: The Gloaming, Part 2 by M. E. Garber

Show Notes

Today we present Part 2 of The Gloaming by M E Garber. Be sure to check out Part 1, first, if you haven’t already.


The Gloaming

by M E Garber

At this time I knew the Rules One through Five. They were easy, almost ridiculously so. Except for the “Asking” part, which I found hard.

 

Rule One: What you truly believe will become real. What you truly disbelieve will fade.

Rule Two: Pride brings unwelcome notice, and testing by the true fey. Guard well against Pride.

Rule Three: The Question must be asked. A lore-tender may only divulge rules once his or her charge has asked after each of them. Some leading is permissible, but pure telling is not possible.

Rule Four: Names prove important in strange, unpredictable ways. Always be careful when Naming if you have the power of fey.

Rule Five: Protect your purity. Loss of that innocence, of purity in your thoughts and deeds, will result in loss of your fey abilities.

 

My own corollary to Rule Five: It’s well-known that unicorns only associate with pure fey innocents. So, to stay with Azim al-Liajli, I stayed as far from human boys as possible. Easy.


Another goblin rush. The beast on my back eased his grip as he edged his head around to watch his brethren in glory. The hand on my breast even ceased its carousing. I whirled my eyes around to the others holding me. All leaned forward, engrossed in the battle. Their hands were loose, and their leader edged forward to watch the fall of the final unicorns.

A scream heralded another unicorn down. The hands on me loosed further as the goblins guffawed at the beast’s pain. Azim al-Liajli and his remaining companion now stood chest-to-tail, their sides heaving and streaked with blood, mud and goblin ichor.

The goblins were sure of victory–too sure. Their overconfidence was my opportunity. As they began the attack, I reached over my head, grabbed the surprised monster on my back and threw him into the leader’s face.

And I screamed.

I screamed my anger, my outrage. I screamed the agony of watching my protectors die, and the hot pain of knowing it was all – ALL – my fault. My lungs exhaled the storm:  all the power of the winds unleashed, the tree boughs rushing and bending before my wind, adding to it their strength.

I believed I could do it, and I did. I shaped that howling wind. It flattened every goblin. The wind struck, knocking them senseless. The winds flattened the cornfield, scoured clean the ditch, sought every last goblin. Only the unicorns it spared.

All my agony, all my rage, all my power, vented into that screaming wind. It lasted a long time.

It ceased as suddenly as it began. The air was still. Clouds covered the sky as a heaviness settled over everything, weighted and expectant.

But I saw and felt nothing.

Azim snorted.

My trance broke. Devastation surrounded me:  cornfields shredded, heaps of goblins lying where they’d fallen, broken branches all around, impaling some of the goblins, and debris and weeds scattered over all. Four white shapes, no longer glowing like moons, lay along the field’s edge, one more by Azim al-Liajli and his companion, both of whom stood leaning together for support. The other’s eyes were dull with pain, but Azim al-Liajli met my gaze.

He snorted again, bobbed his head and struck out with his front hoof. I followed the motion, and saw the Goblin King lying a few feet away. His hands were beginning to twitch. A dagger gleamed in his grip. I kicked him in the chest, and he lay still.

Wooly-headed, I walked away, to the first unicorns killed. They no longer appeared magical, but like small white horses, dead in the mud. My heart grew heavy:  a piece of pure magic sullied by the Goblin King and his minions.

Another step and I saw their many wounds, their broken bones, their … what was that? The first dead unicorn had its head turned away from me at an unnatural angle, but it looked…strange. I walked towards it, telling myself that it couldn’t be true.

But it was.

A jagged hole gaped where the unicorn’s forehead had been, and silvery gore was everywhere. It shimmered on the nearby goblins’ hands and weapons. I looked away in disbelief, but my wide eyes flew back.

The unicorn’s horn was missing.

Sticking out from the second unicorn’s side was the spear that’d been thrust through his heart: its companion’s spiral horn.

I doubled over as if I’d been punched in the gut.

The first things Aunt Rosemarie told me were about unicorns; how they’re kind creatures of pure magic, and they protect less-abled fey creatures–like me. That one should be so desecrated, even in death, was sickening.

I clenched and unclenched my fists, my breath coming in great gulps. I felt hot, hotter even than before. That had been self-defense. This was pure fury. A unicorn corrupted after a noble death, another killed with the spiked horn of its companion–it was just … wrong. Worse than wrong; to kill goodness with the weapon of goodness was obscene.


 I told Aunt Rosemarie about the unicorns and of my dreams of being with them in the garden each full moon. But I never told her I named Azim al-Liajli. Some premonition kept me from it. I was sure she’d be against it, and I’d have to explain how careful I was in naming and I just didn’t want to argue. Not with Aunt Rosemarie, not about something as silly as that. She was still helping me be the best fey-girl I could be. I didn’t want to endanger that, and my senses told me that this could do just that.

I was keeping secrets. But what teenager doesn’t, I told myself. It’s nothing unusual, nothing dangerous. For once I was glad to be normal. Just your average kid. It felt safer.

Well, I could lie to myself, and to those around me, but I couldn’t lie to the gloaming-world. Things began to change. Slowly at first, so I didn’t really mark the difference. And when I did, it was too late.

The first changes were so subtle – the unicorns became restless in the garden, pacing the perimeter. Azim changed, too. He stared intently at me while resting his gleaming white head in my lap. It seemed like he was asking me deep and serious questions, but in a language I couldn’t understand. After a few moments of the searching look, he’d sigh and relax, eyes drooping into sleep. Waking, he’d snort, shake his head and rise to his white-hoofed feet, then trot over to pace along the wall.

This action puzzled me, and hurt, too. Why did Azim shake his head so that his forelock hid his eyes from me? Why did he leave me only to pace the wall? What was going on?

I longed to ask Aunt Rosemarie, but of course I couldn’t. I’d have to explain too much, expose too many lies-by-omission. I knew she’d have an answer for me, if only I could ask it. So I tried to think of a way to phrase it, to make it seem like any other ‘idle curiosity’ question, as opposed to a ‘burning need’ question. By this point it was closer to a ‘burning need’ question. The signs were obvious.

My nightly walks home – now alone, of course – once so delightful and anticipated, took on a sinister quality. The fairies seemed less common, more wary. No longer did the ward-wolves pad around me,  flanking me with their steadying presence and their doggy-minty aroma. Instead, the woods remained unusually still and quiet as I walked by, and small stirrings in the brush behind me raised the hairs on my neck. If I spun around, a swaying branch marked where something had been.

I had the impression of many eyes gazing out at me with malign interest. Nothing showed itself for my flashlight – once more always at hand – to illuminate. My imagination ran along full-steam, sensing a goblin horde trying to trap me, waiting for a moment of my inattention. And in my haste and hurry to protect myself, I forgot Rule Number 1.


My brain boiled over. The only thought throbbing there was repayment for unspeakable wrongs. Revenge. I grabbed the spiral horn and pulled. The pointed tip glistened as it slipped free with a wet hiss. The gold was now cheap and brassy-looking. Hefting it, it felt good in my hand. I smiled as my feet moved of their own accord.

I halted,  surprised–but then not–to find myself back where I’d begun. The Goblin King lay sprawled at my feet. A breeze skittered around his hairy chin. The whiskers waved. He made a small, wet sigh.

Azim whickered. My head jerked up as I recognized the first real-world nicker. Azim took two mincing steps and laid his nose on my forearm. His whiskers felt rougher than in the moonlit-dreams, his chin warmer. Freesia drowned out the smells of blood and goblin-stench. His glittering dark eyes captivated me.

The goblins almost stole him from me. My stomach burned.

I thrust Azim’s head aside as I plunged the horn down with both hands. It struck the body where I thought its heart–if goblins had such a thing–would be.

Azim’s scream of protest rent the air.

A blinding light and a sharp “Crack!” extinguished the world. I threw up my hands to protect my eyes, my face … and I remembered no more.


When I woke, I recognized the familiar lace curtains and herbal smell of the room; I was back at Aunt Rosemarie’s, in her guest bedroom. I remember now that I’d hoped she’d have fresh cream and strawberries for breakfast, as when I was seven.

The door cracked open, and Aunt Rosemarie came in, carrying a small tray. It wasn’t the Aunt Rosemarie of my childhood, but an older, stiffer woman–the modern Aunt Rosemarie of my seventeen years. Only then did I remember that something bad had happened. But I couldn’t recall what.

Seeing me awake, her lined face edged into a small, tight smile. “No frowning, dear. You’ll remember soon enough, I’m sure. Now, why don’t you eat this breakfast and gain some strength. You’ll need it, I think.” She smiled again, but it didn’t reach the sadness in her eyes.

I ate the toast, drank the lemon-rosemary tea with plenty of honey. I saw scratches on my arms, on my hands; gouges, even, in places. I held them out to examine them. My shoulders ached when I moved, as if I’d hoed and planted the whole garden in one day, by myself. I grunted, surprised I could hurt so badly. I looked to my aunt who watched me with troubled eyes.

“You got caught in the storm not far from here, out in the cornfields. Lightning struck nearby, and a tornado, too. You were lucky not to be hit by flying debris, like the nearby horses. That’s the official story, at least. From the farmer who brought you here. The non-fey view. But I think something else happened, Sylvie. Yes?” She peered at me closely.

It came back to me, in terrible, jagged pieces. I convulsed into tears, hiccoughing and shaking by the time I finished telling Aunt Rosemarie my story, what I recalled, how I remembered it. All of it, this time, including how I’d named my unicorn, how I’d been so proud, and hadn’t even realized it. How I’d brought it all on myself. How I’d forgotten all about the Rules.

“But I won’t make that mistake anymore. I’ve learned my lesson,” I promised, wiping the tears and snot from my face with the towel she handed me. My face was swollen, my eyes ached, my nose felt three times its normal size, and tears burned my cheeks and chin. But all that pain couldn’t match the misery I felt whenever I remembered the dead unicorns.

Senseless deaths. All my fault.

“Oh, child,” Aunt Rosemarie said, sitting beside me on the bed, and she gathered me into her bosom and rocked me back and forth. “Oh, my poor, poor child.”

Something was going on. She wouldn’t look at me, and she didn’t speak for the longest while. Finally, I pulled out of her rocking embrace.

“What?”

“There won’t be a next time, Sylvie.”

I stared at her. She grasped my limp hands in hers. Her voice was hoarse with pain.

“Azim al-Liajli, your unicorn. You named him ‘Defender of the Pure,’ not ‘The Pure-White Defender.’ Semantics are important in magic, remember? Rule Four. He won’t defend you anymore. You’ve lost your purity.”

“I have not!” I shouted, pulling away. “Those goblins grabbed me, they felt me up a bit, but they didn’t … I’m still …” My cheeks burned red, and I couldn’t speak, too embarrassed to mention sex and virginity to my maiden aunt. I knew the goblins would’ve raped me after the unicorns were dead. Thinking of those disgusting creatures doing that – my imagination failed me. Fortunately.

Aunt Rosemarie clenched my hands. I winced and met her hard eyes.

“No, girl, not sex – innocence. Despite the fairy tales, they’re different. The Rules state it. You lost your innocence when you killed for revenge. Using the unicorn’s horn as your weapon was the icing; just as bad, in its way, as the goblins’ use of it.”

“But….”

My mind was spinning faster than my tongue could go. I spoke slowly, trying to concentrate on one single strand of thought. “I was saving Azim al-Liajli’s life. The goblin was going to kill him. He had a knife.” My reply sounded limp to my ears. I realized that Azim tried to prevent me from killing the goblin with his gaze. But the rage flooded me again and I struck. I had killed for revenge.

I slumped in my aunt’s sheltering arms. A long while later, without looking up, I asked the only question that mattered to me.

“Have I … do I still have my fey abilities?”

The slow shaking of her head rocked me as I rested on her bosom. Her old-lady, lavender and herbal scent filled my nose with the motion. I dreaded that answer, even as I knew it was the only true one.

There was a long silence before another question burned its way out of my mouth.

“Will I ever see him again?” I meant Azim al-Liajli.

“No, Sylvie. He can’t see you. Even if he wanted to. He didn’t make the rules, either, you know. But we all have to live by them. Whether we want to or not.” Her soft voice was muffled. I could tell she was lost in her own thoughts. I wondered what had happened to her. Something similar, I was sure. I should’ve asked those questions long ago.

While I knew I would care later, right now nothing mattered. Nothing got through the emptiness.

The space where my strong magic had been was an echoing chamber – vast, beautiful and empty, like a palace for Sleeping Beauty. If only I could believe that a kiss from my beloved could awaken me from this terrible dream. But my beloved was a unicorn, and I was no longer pure in thought.

“Whether we believe in it, or not,” I muttered, half asleep in her arms.

“Exactly.”


Years have passed since that time. Aunt Rosemarie is long gone. My sister has two children, my brother and his wife expect their first. I am anxiously watching you youngsters for any sign of the fey about you. So far, nothing. But I remain vigilant.

And dedicated. I’ll see to it that the next generation, the ones I teach, will benefit from my pain. Unlike Aunt Rosemarie, who couldn’t bear to tell me her tale until after I’d failed, too. How I wish….

But it doesn’t matter. The past is done. My magic is gone. I sense things, but I can no longer affect them. I can only pass on the lore.

Therefore this tale, written here for any to read. I may not be able to tell the information, but there is no Rule against writing it, or leaving the story out for it to be read. The Rules are what they are, and I must abide by them, like them or not. But, as Aunt Rosemarie and the Rules both have said, ‘be careful when using names.’

Perhaps I can’t use the fey abilities any more. But I can use semantics, dear niece or nephew. Read this and heed my warning.

And, if you happen to see Azim al-Liajli, please, tell him I love him still.

Episode 63: The Gloaming, Part 1 by M. E. Garber


The Gloaming, Part 1

by M E Garber

I forgot Rule Number 1.

I imagined the evil hordes, and they became real.

I did it. I believed in them, gave them their power and forms. They merely fed my fear and my inattention, directed my fertile imagination into the darkness of isolation. I followed, as blind as I could be.


Aunt Rosemarie sniffed the air as she opened the door, and peered around as I stepped outside to walk home.

“Something’s funny. It feels wrong out here,” she said, shaking her head. She’d been unsettled for two nights. Tonight she looked worse still. Her pale blue eyes flickered over my face, looking for – something. I ducked my head, trying to hide my own nervousness, hide the questions I wanted to ask, but didn’t know how. At seventeen, there were lots of things I couldn’t easily say anymore, but this was a big one.

I shuffled my foot, nodded and smiled. “It’s supposed to storm later. Maybe it’s the weather you’re feeling.”

She grunted. I was more sensitive than she was anymore. She always said so, at any rate, explaining “At puberty, all those senses are ratcheted so sky-high, you could sense a misplaced pin a haystack if you wanted to.”

She searched my face again.

“Should I call your father? He’d pick you up. We’d say it was fear of the storm, if you want …” She glanced over my shoulder, out at the darkness beyond the porch light, where even now the breeze was stiffening, the trees beginning to sough. The air felt heavy and prickled with expectation.

My aunt pulled her troubled gaze back up to my face, back into the light of the dim porch-light trying to illuminate all the night. A few moths spun around it, making me dizzy with their arching and spinning. That made me smile, and I relaxed.

“Aunt Rosemarie, it’s okay. Really.” I smiled as I leaned down to pat Flora the cat, who now circled my ankles. “I’ll be home long before the storm breaks, and let’s face it – you’ve taught me well how NOT to be afraid of the dark.”

Aunt Rosemarie chuckled at that, and I felt her relax. Not entirely, but enough; she’d let me go.

I scooped Flora in my arms and snuggled her close a moment, then handed the cat back to Aunt Rosemarie. As I did, she said, “Well, I suppose I have, at that. I’m not sure I like it, but you go on, then. And call me when you get home. Maybe it’s just an old woman’s worries, but I just can’t shake the sense that this storm just … isn’t right, somehow.” She shook her head while stroking the ancient cat in her arms.

I smiled for her over my shoulder as I stepped off the porch, the stairs squeaking under me.

“I’ll do that. Goodnight.”

Her “Goodnight” rang through the air  like a benediction, a blessing that wrapped around me and kept me safe and warm. I snuggled into that feeling as I left the long driveway and walked along the country road that would bring me home, in town under the glare of incandescent street lights that I normally hated. Now I longed to reach them.


 

In the gloaming, understand, anything is possible. You see, I’m a fey-girl, and Aunt Rosemarie is my teacher. She knew what I was from the beginning. She didn’t belittle my stories or roll her eyes at my sightings like everyone else, and her voice didn’t take on babyish, high-pitched tones when discussing these things with me.

Daddy would not-so-patiently shine the flashlight’s revealing beam on the scary shape and it was the stump of a dead tree, covered in ivy – when a moment before it had been a witch or a goblin sneaking after me, wearing a flowing cloak.

“See,” he’d whine. “Nothing to be afraid of, Sylvie.”

And after the flashlight’s beam showed the unflattering, mundane “reality,” it had to stay that way. Those are the Rules.

Aunt Rosemarie told me about the Rules, and how to use them to my advantage. Thanks to her, I learned that what I saw was partly mine to choose, and that what became real was influenced by how much I believed in what I saw. So I taught myself to see ward-wolves, the protectors of forests and fey, instead of shadow jaguars, the lurking evil cats that pounced on unwary innocents. And instead of goblins I saw fairies. If I did see a “goblin,” I shone a light onto the spot to see what it really was, so that my “imagined” evil couldn’t become real.

It was all wonderful, even if a little scary. Everywhere I looked in the thickening darkness of evening — the gloaming — the woods near Aunt Rosemarie’s house came alive with silent shapes, furtive whispers, rustlings in the undergrowth marking the passage of things unseen. Aunt Rosemarie walked me home in the evenings, on the dirt road running along the edge of the woods, and helped me practice. As time went on, those things became less scary, more enchanting.

But they were about to become scary again.


The wind whipped across the fields. The corn, head-high, was rustling and rattling, making such a ruckus as to drown out almost any other sound. The forest lay beyond the fields, further down the road. There the wind would be quieted by the density of the trees. I’d feel safer there, less exposed. My name, Sylvie, comes from sylvan, or “from the woods.” It meant my magic was strongest in the forest. I picked up my pace.

The wind fussed with my hair, so I tucked the loose strands behind my ear. Thick clouds scudded across the horizon and blocked out the stars. The moon made a sporadic showing, and her waning, half-full figure cast little light on the terrain. A thousand things could be hidden in that darkness and I’d never see it, or hear it, thanks to the corn. I shivered, then gave myself a mental shake.

“Get a grip!” I muttered.

Despite the strong winds, a reek rose around me. I gagged and put a hand over my mouth and nose, warding off the rotting stench of an animal carcass. It came from the deep ditch to my right, there in the drain-pipe culvert under the tractor bridge. It hadn’t been there before – I would’ve remembered it!

A wailing howl, cut short, rang out from the forest’s edge. I jerked my head up. A ward-wolf!

A snarl, nearly masked by the now-shrieking cornfield and blown away by the howling wind, sounded nearby.  At the same time, I saw a motion, a glowing, opalescent form moving in the nearest corn rows.

It was Azim al-Liajli, my chosen unicorn! He broke through the corn at the small clearing before the tractor bridge just behind me. Around him, his six unicorn companions emerged from the cornfield. I didn’t have time to marvel that, for the first time, I was seeing Azim al-Liajli and his brethren in the flesh instead of in the dream-world.

He stamped a hoof and snorted, and the ground in the carrion-stinking ditch between us began to boil. Like black vomit and bile of the earth, goblins rose up – misshapen and twisted, with dark, cunning eyes and vicious teeth gleaming in their malevolent smiles. They were short, maybe three feet tall, with long, oddly-jointed limbs. Their reek gagged me.

I shrank back, hoping they hadn’t seen me. But they knew I was there — they’d come for me. Five turned toward me, malice in their smiles, while the remainder advanced toward the unicorns, who lowered their heads and horns, bracing their feet against the tide.

I backed up, away from the goblins and the unicorns they now clashed with. Panic washed over me and I turned my back on all that feyness to flee, but a bony, long-fingered hand snatched my elbow. Others grabbed my arms and even my leg. I twisted and flung myself about, trying to wrench free, but the fingers, the hands groping all over my body, were too tight, too many, too strong. And the stench of them was so overwhelming, my breath came in ragged gasps. One glued himself to my back, his arms and legs wrapped intimately around me. Two others held my arms, and one sat on my left foot and gripped the ankle and calf.

I couldn’t move.


I spent long days tending the garden with Aunt Rosemarie, while my older brother and sister were in after-school activities and my parents worked. Grandma Seal – her name was Cecilia, but I’d always thought of the animal – lived there with Aunt Rosemarie in her cottage in the country. Grandma Seal was full of stories. She told me the oldest stories she remembered. A light would come on in Grandma’s pale blue eyes, like a beacon, as she launched into a new yarn.

Folktales, she called them. Old wives’ tales, my mother snorted. Fairy tales, my siblings–far older and too superior for such children’s things–scorned. My father never said much of anything except “Oh,” or “Uh-huh,” and went back to his magazine.

I didn’t care because Aunt Rosemarie confided that this is the way it always is. That most people can’t see and some won’t see, while only a few really do see the magic, the mysterious things. And of those few, only a very few human-fey mixed-bloods – like me – can influence them.

She told me not to be too proud because then I’d draw the pure fey to me like moths are drawn to a porch-light. Then the goblins and the evil witches would outnumber the good elves and fairies. They’d become stronger and bolder, and they’d play havoc with our mundane, human world.

Now, this seemed a bit too much for me to believe, even after everything else she’d told me. All the rest seemed logical and reasonable to my creative young mind, but not this.

“How could something you don’t believe in hurt you?” I’d asked as we weeded the garden.

The teasing light left her pale gray-blue eyes.

“If only we could prevent evil by not believing in it – if only it were that simple, Sylvie. But evil is always there, waiting for its chance to twist meanings. To ruin us.”

And she’d shaken her head and hobbled back into the house.


The goblin on my back rubbed himself on me, slowly. I lowered my head and saw the goblin holding my foot smile. I shuddered, and he gripped tighter with one hand and stroked my ankle with the other. His yellowed, sharp teeth gleamed.

“Good,” the one on my back hissed into my ear, “good girl. No more fighting now, eh? Heh-heh-hee.”

I would have collapsed except for fear of what might happen if I was on the ground. I trembled.

Fingers grabbed my chin and forced my head down. A goblin, obviously their leader, held my face. He stood taller than the rest, coming up to my shoulder. His inhumanly-long arms reached my chin while the other wound itself into my hair. He was so strong. My breath rasped in my throat as I fought the terror and nausea warring for possession of my stomach.

All the chaos of the battle–pounding hooves, squeals and cries of pain, neighs of triumph, hoarse yells and cheers–dimmed as I gazed into that face. Dark eyes that gleamed like fresh blood; smooth skin not brown, black or gray, but somehow all those combined, like the slurping mud that pulls the shoes off your feet. A few wiry hairs ran along his jawline, and several longer ones formed a tuft at his pointed chin. His mouth twisted into a grin, showing pointed teeth growing in all directions and two long fangs protruding from his lower jaw like tusks.

He was compelling. I couldn’t draw my gaze away despite his repulsive smell, the horror of his looks, the sounds that called to me. His eyes drew me in, calmed me.  My body quivered, my heart pounded and my breath raced fast and shallow. Part of my mind was screaming, “Run! Fight! Flee!,” but I had no volition. I was ensorcelled.

I was amazed at how well-done the trap–the ensnarement–had been. I marveled at his control, and acknowledged a mastery greater than my own.

“No! NO!” screamed a wiser fraction of my brain. But it was too late.

What I believe becomes reality. I was now defenseless.

The Goblin King stroked my cheek, then released my face and turned to watch the battle. Now that I’d been mastered, it seemed I was to watch the slaughter with my captors.


My Change occurred around age fourteen. Afterwards, when I dreamed in the light of the full moon, I played with unicorns, dancing with them, stroking their warm and gleaming sides. Their soft, whiskery noses nuzzling my hair, tickling my neck. One unicorn in particular was my favorite, and he regarded me similarly. He came often, and stayed longer that the rest, sometimes even lying his head in my lap for me to smooth his forelock from his eyes, to stroke his brow. He’d sigh, I’d sigh, and we’d both be lulled to sleep by warm freesia-scented breezes. When I’d wake next, I’d be back in my own room, in my bed, and the scent of freesias would surround me, seeming to come in the open window on moonbeams.

Romance:  that was the Change, Aunt Rosemarie explained.

I decided that my unicorn needed a name, a special name. Now, we’d already covered the importance of naming, using her own name as an example. Well, rosemary is an herb, and not just any herb. It’s the herb of remembering, of memory. And here she was, remembering all the lore, passing it on to me. “Just as one day,” she’d said, “you’ll pass it on to the next generation. That’s the way it works, you know. We creative ones don’t have children of our own.”

“Why?”

But her face had turned to stone. She sat there for long, unmoving moments as I watched the memories flashing behind her eyes. They weren’t good. Into the hush that had silenced even the breeze, Grandma Seal called, “Lunch’s ready! You better get inside.” The spell broke, the vision of memories stopped.

So I called my special unicorn ‘Azim al-Liajli,’ which as I reasoned it out, meant Protector the Pure. I meant it to signify his pure whiteness, and his role as my defender against the forces of evil magic outside our beautiful walled garden. That’s where I found myself now, in my dreams with him and the other unicorns: in a beautiful, sunny walled garden–like in the tapestries–with a forest, dark and lovely, all around. I whispered his name into his ear one night. His dark eye regarded me, then began to gleam, and he nuzzled my hair, my neck. I could tell he was pleased with my choice.

So passed two more years. Quiet, idyllic years.

Aunt Rosemarie had gotten older, more frail. She needed my help more than I needed hers now. She had her hands full trying to care for Grandma Seal, the house and the garden, and she welcomed my visits; needed them, even.

My little magics helped the day along, although once in awhile Aunt Rosemarie scowled a bit, her jowls shaking as she growled, “Be cautious with how you play with that, girl! Magic’s not to be abused, and it’s not to be over-used, either! Don’t draw attention to yourself, Sylvie – it’s never any good! The true fey don’t care for us, and they want us gone. Remember your Rules.”

I’d always look solemn and promise that I’d be careful not to draw attention, not to let anyone know what I was doing. And since I meant it, she was mollified. But I wasn’t about to NOT use these gifts, to do everything the hard way, when I didn’t have to. Not when the fey magic ran in my blood.

So I’d “see” all the weeding done, the garden looking proper and neat in the ninety-degree sun, and it would be. Then I’d go do some work in the shade for a few hours before I went back to tell Aunt Rosemarie the weeding was done. Or I’d imagine the watering bucket full at the well, so I wouldn’t have to haul the water all the way up from the depths by the hand crank. I’d still fill the watering cans and carry them to the garden, but at least I wouldn’t have rope-burned hands along with the sore arms and shoulders and a sunburned neck.

They were small concessions, and they kept me sane and my skills sharp. When an emergency came, I’d keep my wits and see my desired ending, I told myself. And I believed it. But there was a pull, too, toward using magic just because. Because it was easier. Because, despite the warnings, I was growing proud.

“What was the good of having a talent if you never got to use it. Why have a cook and then do all your own cooking anyway?” I asked Aunt Rosemarie one afternoon after her warning.

“What’s gotten into you, girl? This fey power is no plaything. I’ve told you that from the get-go. And still you don’t understand this?” She snorted, a warbly sound deep in her throat that commanded no respect seeing as how it resembled canary sneezing. “You flaunt your powers, you’ll draw unwanted attention from the true fey, you can be sure of it. And trust me, Sylvie, you really don’t want that. They barely tolerate humans-fey mongrels like us. They want you to fail.”

Her eyes rolled, and foam flecked her lips. She was really worked up over this I realized, and I lost my anger. Something had happened to her. I could almost see it again, but she wouldn’t talk about it. Or maybe I wasn’t asking the right question.


The unicorns began falling before the crush of goblins. One screamed as it was pulled under by nightmarish black and gray figures. With another scream, a second disappeared beneath a rising hill of goblins. When the hill flattened, the unicorn was gone. A third took a blow to the neckline and crumpled without a sound, while a fourth unicorn struggled to stay upright on three legs. Its right rear leg hung at a sick angle, with a bone protruding below the hock. A grinning pair of goblins taunted him by swiping at his front legs with their long wooden spears. A third goblin leapt onto his back, whipped a rope around his neck and yanked back. The unicorn reared onto his hind legs in eye-rolling panic, then toppled back and sideways. Another guttural cheer went up from the surrounding goblin horde.

The last three unicorns stood in a circle, hindquarters almost touching. They staved off assault after assault. Facing me was Azim al-Liajli. A flurry of motion came between us as another rush of goblins tried to break the trio. Snorts, stamped hooves and screams rent the air while the dark forms of broken goblins went flying. At the next pause,  Azim al-Liajli had a trickle of blood seeping down his fetlock, and one of his partners was wheezing. They couldn’t last much longer.

Episode 62: The Quarrel of the Monkey and the Crab by Yei Theodora Ozaki


The Quarrel of the Monkey and the Crab

by Yei Theodora Ozaki

Long, long ago, one bright autumn day in Japan, it happened that a pink-faced monkey and a yellow crab were playing together along the bank of a river. As they were running about, the crab found a rice-dumpling and the monkey a persimmon-seed.

The crab picked up the rice-dumpling and showed it to the monkey, saying:

“Look what a nice thing I have found!”

Then the monkey held up his persimmon-seed and said:

“I also have found something good! Look!”

Now though the monkey is always very fond of persimmon fruit, he had no use for the seed he had just found. The persimmon-seed is as hard and uneatable as a stone. He, therefore, in his greedy nature, felt very envious of the crab’s nicer dumpling, and he proposed an exchange. The crab naturally did not see why he should give up his prize for a hard stone-like seed, and would not consent to the monkey’s proposition.

Then the cunning monkey began to persuade the crab, saying:

“How unwise you are not to think of the future! Your rice-dumpling can be eaten now, and is certainly much bigger than my seed; but if you sow this seed in the ground it will soon grow and become a great tree in a few years, and bear an abundance of fine ripe persimmons year after year. If only I could show it to you then with the yellow fruit hanging on its branches! Of course, if you don’t believe me I shall sow it myself; though I am sure, later on, you will be very sorry that you did not take my advice.”

The simple-minded crab could not resist the monkey’s clever persuasion. He at last gave in and consented to the monkey’s proposal, and the exchange was made. The greedy monkey soon gobbled up the dumpling, and with great reluctance gave up the persimmon-seed to the crab. He would have liked to keep that too, but he was afraid of making the crab angry and of being pinched by his sharp scissor-like claws. They then separated, the monkey going home to his forest trees and the crab to his stones along the river-side. As soon as the crab reached home he put the persimmon-seed in the ground as the monkey had told him.

In the following spring the crab was delighted to see the shoot of a young tree push its way up through the ground. Each year it grew bigger, till at last it blossomed one spring, and in the following autumn bore some fine large persimmons. Among the broad smooth green leaves the fruit hung like golden balls, and as they ripened they mellowed to a deep orange. It was the little crab’s pleasure to go out day by day and sit in the sun and put out his long eyes in the same way as a snail puts out its horn, and watch the persimmons ripening to perfection.

“How delicious they will be to eat!” he said to himself.

At last, one day, he knew the persimmons must be quite ripe and he wanted very much to taste one. He made several attempts to climb the tree, in the vain hope of reaching one of the beautiful persimmons hanging above him; but he failed each time, for a crab’s legs are not made for climbing trees but only for running along the ground and over stones, both of which he can do most cleverly. In his dilemma he thought of his old playmate the monkey, who, he knew, could climb trees better than any one else in the world. He determined to ask the monkey to help him, and set out to find him.

Running crab-fashion up the stony river bank, over the pathways into the shadowy forest, the crab at last found the monkey taking an afternoon nap in his favorite pine-tree, with his tail curled tight around a branch to prevent him from falling off in his dreams. He was soon wide awake, however, when he heard himself called, and eagerly listening to what the crab told him. When he heard that the seed which he had long ago exchanged for a rice-dumpling had grown into a tree and was now bearing good fruit, he was delighted, for he at once devised a cunning plan which would give him all the persimmons for himself.

He consented to go with the crab to pick the fruit for him. When they both reached the spot, the monkey was astonished to see what a fine tree had sprung from the seed, and with what a number of ripe persimmons the branches were loaded.

He quickly climbed the tree and began to pluck and eat, as fast as he could, one persimmon after another. Each time he chose the best and ripest he could find, and went on eating till he could eat no more. Not one would he give to the poor hungry crab waiting below, and when he had finished there was little but the hard, unripe fruit left.

You can imagine the feelings of the poor crab after waiting patiently, for so long as he had done, for the tree to grow and the fruit to ripen, when he saw the monkey devouring all the good persimmons. He was so disappointed that he ran round and round the tree calling to the monkey to remember his promise. The monkey at first took no notice of the crab’s complaints, but at last he picked out the hardest, greenest persimmon he could find and aimed it at the crab’s head. The persimmon is as hard as stone when it is unripe. The monkey’s missile struck home and the crab was sorely hurt by the blow. Again and again, as fast as he could pick them, the monkey pulled off the hard persimmons and threw them at the defenseless crab till he dropped dead, covered with wounds all over his body. There he lay a pitiful sight at the foot of the tree he had himself planted.

When the wicked monkey saw that he had killed the crab he ran away from the spot as fast as he could, in fear and trembling, like a coward as he was.

Now the crab had a son who had been playing with a friend not far from the spot where this sad work had taken place. On the way home he came across his father dead, in a most dreadful condition—his head was smashed and his shell broken in several places, and around his body lay the unripe persimmons which had done their deadly work. At this dreadful sight the poor young crab sat down and wept.

But when he had wept for some time he told himself that this crying would do no good; it was his duty to avenge his father’s murder, and this he determined to do. He looked about for some clue which would lead him to discover the murderer. Looking up at the tree he noticed that the best fruit had gone, and that all around lay bits of peel and numerous seeds strewn on the ground as well as the unripe persimmons which had evidently been thrown at his father. Then he understood that the monkey was the murderer, for he now remembered that his father had once told him the story of the rice-dumpling and the persimmon-seed. The young crab knew that monkeys liked persimmons above all other fruit, and he felt sure that his greed for the coveted fruit had been the cause of the old crab’s death. Alas!

He at first thought of going to attack the monkey at once, for he burned with rage. Second thoughts, however, told him that this was useless, for the monkey was an old and cunning animal and would be hard to overcome. He must meet cunning with cunning and ask some of his friends to help him, for he knew it would be quite out of his power to kill him alone.

The young crab set out at once to call on the mortar, his father’s old friend, and told him of all that had happened. He besought the mortar with tears to help him avenge his father’s death. The mortar was very sorry when he heard the woeful tale and promised at once to help the young crab punish the monkey to death. He warned him that he must be very careful in what he did, for the monkey was a strong and cunning enemy. The mortar now sent to fetch the bee and the chestnut (also the crab’s old friends) to consult them about the matter. In a short time the bee and the chestnut arrived. When they were told all the details of the old crab’s death and of the monkey’s wickedness and greed, they both gladly consented to help the young crab in his revenge.

After talking for a long time as to the ways and means of carrying out their plans they separated, and Mr. Mortar went home with the young crab to help him bury his poor father.

While all this was taking place the monkey was congratulating himself (as the wicked often do before their punishment comes upon them) on all he had done so neatly. He thought it quite a fine thing that he had robbed his friend of all his ripe persimmons and then that he had killed him. Still, smile as hard as he might, he could not banish altogether the fear of the consequences should his evil deeds be discovered. IF he were found out (and he told himself that this could not be for he had escaped unseen) the crab’s family would be sure to bear him hatred and seek to take revenge on him. So he would not go out, and kept himself at home for several days. He found this kind of life, however, extremely dull, accustomed as he was to the free life of the woods, and at last he said:

“No one knows that it was I who killed the crab! I am sure that the old thing breathed his last before I left him. Dead crabs have no mouths! Who is there to tell that I am the murderer? Since no one knows, what is the use of shutting myself up and brooding over the matter? What is done cannot be undone!”

With this he wandered out into the crab settlement and crept about as slyly as possible near the crab’s house and tried to hear the neighbors’ gossip round about. He wanted to find out what the crabs were saying about their chief’s death, for the old crab had been the chief of the tribe. But he heard nothing and said to himself:

“They are all such fools that they don’t know and don’t care who murdered their chief!”

Little did he know in his so-called “monkey’s wisdom” that this seeming unconcern was part of the young crab’s plan. He purposely pretended not to know who killed his father, and also to believe that he had met his death through his own fault. By this means he could the better keep secret the revenge on the monkey, which he was meditating.

So the monkey returned home from his walk quite content. He told himself he had nothing now to fear.

One fine day, when the monkey was sitting at home, he was surprised by the appearance of a messenger from the young crab. While he was wondering what this might mean, the messenger bowed before him and said:

“I have been sent by my master to inform you that his father died the other day in falling from a persimmon tree while trying to climb the tree after fruit. This, being the seventh day, is the first anniversary after his death, and my master has prepared a little festival in his father’s honor, and bids you come to participate in it as you were one of his best friends. My master hopes you will honor his house with your kind visit.”

When the monkey heard these words he rejoiced in his inmost heart, for all his fears of being suspected were now at rest. He could not guess that a plot had just been set in motion against him. He pretended to be very surprised at the news of the crab’s death, and said:

“I am, indeed, very sorry to hear of your chief’s death. We were great friends as you know. I remember that we once exchanged a rice-dumpling for a persimmon-seed. It grieves me much to think that that seed was in the end the cause of his death. I accept your kind invitation with many thanks. I shall be delighted to do honor to my poor old friend!” And he screwed some false tears from his eyes.

The messenger laughed inwardly and thought, “The wicked monkey is now dropping false tears, but within a short time he shall shed real ones.” But aloud he thanked the monkey politely and went home.

When he had gone, the wicked monkey laughed aloud at what he thought was the young crab’s innocence, and without the least feeling began to look forward to the feast to be held that day in honor of the dead crab, to which he had been invited. He changed his dress and set out solemnly to visit the young crab.

He found all the members of the crab’s family and his relatives waiting to receive and welcome him. As soon as the bows of meeting were over they led him to a hall. Here the young chief mourner came to receive him. Expressions of condolence and thanks were exchanged between them, and then they all sat down to a luxurious feast and entertained the monkey as the guest of honor.

The feast over, he was next invited to the tea-ceremony room to drink a cup of tea. When the young crab had conducted the monkey to the tearoom he left him and retired. Time passed and still he did not return. At last the monkey became impatient. He said to himself:

“This tea ceremony is always a very slow affair. I am tired of waiting so long. I am very thirsty after drinking so much sake at the dinner!”

He then approached the charcoal fire-place and began to pour out some hot water from the kettle boiling there, when something burst out from the ashes with a great pop and hit the monkey right in the neck. It was the chestnut, one of the crab’s friends, who had hidden himself in the fireplace. The monkey, taken by surprise, jumped backward, and then started to run out of the room.

The bee, who was hiding outside the screens, now flew out and stung him on the cheek. The monkey was in great pain, his neck was burned by the chestnut and his face badly stung by the bee, but he ran on screaming and chattering with rage.

Now the stone mortar had hidden himself with several other stones on the top of the crab’s gate, and as the monkey ran underneath, the mortar and all fell down on the top of the monkey’s head. Was it possible for the monkey to bear the weight of the mortar falling on him from the top of the gate? He lay crushed and in great pain, quite unable to get up. As he lay there helpless the young crab came up, and, holding his great claw scissors over the monkey, he said:

“Do you now remember that you murdered my father?”

“Then you—are—my—enemy?” gasped the monkey brokenly.

“Of course,” said the young crab.

“It—was—your—father’s—fault—not—mine!” gasped the unrepentant monkey.

“Can you still lie? I will soon put an end to your breath!” and with that he cut off the monkey’s head with his pitcher claws. Thus the wicked monkey met his well-merited punishment, and the young crab avenged his father’s death.

This is the end of the story of the monkey, the crab, and the persimmon-seed.